The Who & the What Review - A Beautiful Story of Family and Faith

Victory Gardens Theatre finishes its 40th anniversary season with the Midwest premiere of The Who & the What, the story of Pakistani-American writer Zarina, who struggles to reconcile her family’s traditions with her modern ideals. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar and directed by Ron OJ Parson, this rich, compelling comedy is not to be missed.

 

Susaan Jamshidi, Minita Gandhi. The Who & the What by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. Photo credit: Michael Courier

 

With just four actors, the cast of The Who & the What is small but mighty. Susaan Jamshidi’s whip-smart, deeply human Zarina pulls the audience into the world of the play from the first scene, and her interplay with her sister Mahwish, played with finesse by actor Minita Gandhi, is reminiscent of a modern Antigone and Ismene, as the two present conflicting viewpoints about what it means to be a woman in Islam. Rom Barkhourdar brings both charm and authenticity to emoji-loving, deeply faithful father Afzal, and Shane Kenyon rounds out the cast with his vibrant portrayal of Muslim convert Eli, whose romantic relationship with Zarina was one of the highlights of the show.

 

Susaan Jamshidi, Shane Kenyon. The Who & the What by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. Photo credit: Michael Courier

 

What is most beautiful to me about Akhtar’s writing is its delicate balance of specificity and universality. While inextricably tied to the Muslim faith and Pakistani tradition, the play’s central conflict—that of a first-generation American navigating the space between assimilation and stasis—is one that is broadly relatable and often-explored, yet Akhtar brings a freshness to it that is rare and exquisitely done. The play’s specific focus on gender politics and faith, especially a faith that is so often misunderstood in American culture, help create this freshness of dialogue and theme, but so too do the rich and complex characters Akhtar has created. To paraphrase actor Minita Gandhi’s words during the post-show discussion, all of the characters are loveable, and this lends the show much of its strength.

 

Rom Barkhourdar, Minita Gandhi. The Who & the What by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. Photo credit: Michael Courier

 

Although the play’s subject is serious, humor abounds, and with only an hour and forty minutes running time including intermission, the show packs tons of content into a short period of time without becoming overwhelming. Scott Davis’ set design features beautifully painted scrims that create a lush atmosphere for the story, and Andre Pluess’ use of Middle Eastern music in his sound design added verisimilitude and a certain dramatic flair to the production. All the design elements were carefully researched to maximize authenticity, and the intimacy of the space adds to the personal feel of the performance.

 

Rom Barkhourdar. The Who & the What by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Ron OJ Parson. Photo credit: Michael Courier

 

The Who & the What is the kind of play that doesn’t leave your system for days. It is simultaneously heartwarming, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking; a gorgeous script is enhanced by an elegant production. People of all ages, ethnicities, and faiths will find something to love in this play.

 

 

Dates: June 20 – July 12, 2015: Tuesday 7:30 pm (except June 23 and 30); Wednesdays 7:30pm, (Wednesday, July 1 2:00 pm only); Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 7:30pm (except June 19); Saturday at 4:00pm (June 20, 27, July 11 only ) and 7:30 pm (no show July 4); Sunday at 3 pm.

Location: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue

Tickets and information: Call the Victory Gardens Box Office, 773.871.3000, email [email protected] , or visit the Victory Gardens website.  Ask the Box Office about student tickets ($15), senior, Access, $20 under 30, and rush discounts.  For group discounts, call 773.328.2143.

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