Anyone who thinks the generation gap closed way back in the 1970s needs a ticket to Bapsi Sidhwa's hilarious new playAn American Brat
. Based on the Pakistani-born writer's novel of the same title, the charming story, now playing at Stages Theatre, demonstrates how wide that chasm between parents and children remains. Not only is it still here, it crosses cultural, religious and national boundaries and affects us in ways that are both outrageously funny and horribly hurtful.
We first meet the parents, Zareen (Rahnuma Panthaky) and Cyrus (Sundy Srinivasan), a Pakistani couple who have sent their daughter to the United States because Mom worried that daughter Feroza (Arzan Gonda) was being too influenced by fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan. In an effort to help her child find some western girl power, Zareen has sent Feroza to Houston. But once here, Feroza does more than find her voice; she learns how to roar. While living the American dream, Feroza decides to marry a nice American boy -- a nice American Jewish boy. This information comes to Zareen and Cyrus in the form of an innocent little letter that sends the entire family into a tizzy of fainting spells and prayer. The trouble is, the family is Zoroastrian, an ancient religion that does not allow girls to marry outsiders. If Feroza marries this non-Parsi boy, she will shame the entire family.
As shaky as the news makes Zareen, she's a statue of calm compared to Mumma (Uma H. Nagarsheth), Feroza's well-intentioned but very manipulative granny. Mumma insists that Zareen fly to American immediately to talk some sense into Feroza. So, with Cyrus's blessing, Zareen embarks on a journey that will change both her and her daughter's lives forever.
This is a long setup, filled with some predictable jokes about mothers-in-law and the shocking things that kids do these days, but all of it is handled with such joy by director Brad Dalton and his wonderful cast that even the stuff that feels fairly old hat comes off as entertaining.
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Once Zareen gets to Houston, the story deepens quite a bit and the real power of Sidhwa's play opens up. Zareen discovers that her daughter has grown in ways the Pakistani mother could never have imagined. The first difficulty for Zareen is Feroza's living situation. She rooms with her fianc David (Luke Eddy) and a girl named Jo (Alison Coriell). Zareen adores Jo (though she doesn't realize this lovely girl is a lesbian), but she barely speaks to David...at first.
Ironically enough, after Zareen spends some time in Houston, she gets used to American freedoms. And despite her mission -- which is to break off her daughter's engagement -- the young man starts to grow on Mom. He even takes her shopping at the Galleria, where she buys pale pink hot pants, of all things. In fact, Zareen enjoys America and its freedoms so much that she starts to understand why her daughter has changed. It almost seems as if she will accept her daughter's choice. But then Cyrus and Mumma call from Pakistan to remind Zareen of what she's doing in America.
And Feroza isn't the only one whose family is worried about her choices. Turns out David's bubbe (Marjorie Carroll) isn't too happy with the fact that her grandson is planning to marry outside the faith, and she manages to stick her two cents into the equation. At the end of one particularly difficult evening, the young couple's future starts to look very dark indeed.
The real strength in this production lies in the subtle but surprisingly emotional shift it makes from comedy to drama. The writing, the direction and the strong cast all contribute to this change. But Panthaky's Zareen, who is beautiful, tender and frighteningly powerful after all is said and done, is particularly impressive, as is Gonda's Feroza. Dalton's direction is layered and artful, and he adds two perfectly theatrical moments when Zareen flies both ways across the ocean. There is real visual poetry in the way she stands alone in a single spot of light while the sound of the airplane fills the theater. There is quiet and lasting depth in this image. What starts out as a funny look at the gap between generations turns into a moving examination of the way those gaps contort lives and contribute to the seemingly everlasting boundaries that keep cultures and religions apart.