Playwright: Ayad Akhtar. At: Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; www.victorygardens.org; $15-$60. Runs through: July 12
A young artist defies the legacy of his ancestors to pursue a career proscribed by his tradition-bound family. Does this scenario sound familiar? You bet it doesit's The Jazz Singer. It's also My Name Is Asher Lev, A View From the Bridge, Family Devotions, Billy Elliott and Fiddler on the Roof.
What distinguishes Zarina Jatt from her peers in this well-worn genre is not only that she is female, but that her rebellion does not spring from romantic willfulness. On the contrary, her husband, Eli, enjoys his in-laws' wholehearted approval, despite his origins as an atheist "red-diaper baby" from Detroit who converted to Islam and now serves in a ghetto mosque. Besides, Zarina's Pakistani immigrant father, Afzal, is, himself, considerably westernized, having worked his way up from driving a taxi to managing his own company, as well as single-handedly raising his two daughters. Even Zarina's sister Mahwish, though granting superficial compliance to her father's old-country customs, frolics on the down-low.
So what has Zarina done to upset her kin? Well, she's written a historical novel depicting Islam's foremost prophet, Muhammad, exhibiting distinctly human emotions and hormonal urges. This framework of deistic fan-fiction enables her to speculate on the facts behind her religion's orthodoxy, inviting reinterpretation of its sacred tenets. As a devout believer, Afzal is appalled at Zarina's blasphemy, but as a father, he fears even more for her safety. Heretics might not risk execution in the United States, but controversy inevitably engenders repercussions. Sure enough, following the publication of Zarina's book, Eli's congregation asks for his resignation, Afzal's offices are vandalized, his drivers quit and he is forced to sell his business.
If Afzal were simply a stubborn old ogre, we would champion Zarina's mission from the get-go, but director Ron OJ Parson and actor Rom Barkhorder refuse to trivialize Ayad Akhtar's insights into cultural conflict with cheap tropes, whether of the sentimental or situation-comedy variety. Instead, our playwright's intricately-nuanced observations on the problems faced by societies in transition are lent uniform depth and compassion by a hard-working cast, leading us to wonder whether Zarina isn't perhaps being just a little bit selfish in not foreseeing the consequences of her daring.
This, by the way, is exactly what we should be thinking. The road to unanimity ne'er did run smooth, not for our pilgrim progenitors, nor for recent arrivals now confronting increasingly complex obstacles to acceptance of new ideas and practices.