One of the biggest current tragedies in Austin theatre right now is the disappearance of performance spaces. What this leads to is artists converting atypical spaces into theatres, meaning you can find great talent in the strangest places. One of these places, buried in the heart of what was once Highland Mall, among blank storefronts and the silence of empty tile floors, is Austin Playhouse. Don’t let the surroundings fool you, however, because inside this peculiar space is a bold and brave company, who takes on one of the most daring and powerful plays of the season with “Disgraced”, the story of Middle Eastern-American apostate who must come to terms with what it means to be Muslim in America.
As “Disgraced” begins, we’re introduced to Amir, a former Muslim from Pakistan who is a successful lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Though ardently against the Muslim faith, his white, artist wife is heavily into Islam, utilizing its history and techniques in her art. Over the course of the play, we’re introduced to characters and situations that force Amir to come to terms with his Islamic heritage, and the weight it carries, which culminates in one of a violent, fiery climax.
“Disgraced” is a play full of escalation, with emotions reaching their boiling points before blowing over, so it’s very important that the actors handle their emotions with a clear balance. If they don’t go far enough, the actors lose believability, but if they let their emotions out too quickly, the performances could come off as one note, so hitting the right middle ground is paramount. Luckily, the actors here are well up to task, pleasant to spend time with in the early stages, raising the emotional intensity throughout the play, reaching their height during the dinner party in the heart of the piece. As the action is left to rise naturally, more intense moments hit with that much more power, adding to the unsettling quality of the text to create something truly moving.
From the first moment we see him, J. Ben Wolfe brings with him plenty of stage presence, but it’s his vulnerability that makes him shine brightest here. Though clad in a hard outer shell, there is something soft inside Wolfe’s Amir that comes out when he feels he’s under attack. During the play’s climax, when Amir flies off the handle and starts saying horrifying things, we can hear, even in his rage, a sorrow, a feeling of alienation. He’s removed himself from Islamic community, but is also separated from the outside world thanks to the “otherness” of being Middle Eastern, which puts him in a difficult place, a man alone, stuck between two worlds. When this bashes against other strong beliefs, such as the strong Islamic beliefs of his wife and nephew, or the Jewish beliefs of Michael Miller’s Isaac, sparks fly, and we get amazing moments of theatrical fireworks. Wolfe is able to control these feelings, however, creating a controlled burn that keeps the audience’s attention without setting the stage ablaze.
Though Wolfe carries much of the weight of the play, his supporting cast doesn’t shy away from shining out when the moment strikes. Michael Miller in particular gives one of his most daring performances, sharpening his usual well-honed neurosis into something more intriguing, a slow-burning anger that hides behind his usual cheerful awkwardness until it rips out in a fiery tirade. Also bringing the heat is Crystal Bird Caviel, whose mixture of brashness and sensitivity is a delight, as she gives one of the most authentic performances in the piece. Finally, we have the always spectacular Molly Karrasch as Amir’s wife, Emily, who is never less than believable as the white Muslim wife of an apostate, and who brings her unique brand of emotional intelligence to the role, playing off each of her co-stars with skill.
“Disgraced” is a brave play, tackling taboo subjects of Islamophobia and national pride, and Austin Playhouse produces one of their most daring productions from it. It shows Austin Playhouse as a company unafraid to take risks and push the limits of what Austin theatre-goers can expect, showing that, even in a theatre buried in a rundown old mall, wonders can be found.
Austin Playhouse’s “Disgraced” runs through January 31st. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit austinplayhouse.com.
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Loveless