Women on the Verge: Next Act and the Milwaukee Rep Explore Gender Politics Past and Present

“The Who and the What” and “Silent Sky” tell very different stories about women who try to find their way in a man’s world.

The savvy — almost stealthy — intelligence of Ayad Akhtar’s 2014 play starts with its title, The Who and the What. The questions here might be part of the standard mantra of journalism teachers (“a news story should tell you who, what, where, when and why”), a just-the-facts-ma’am look at the surface of things. But for the family at the center of Akhtar’s play, which opened at the Milwaukee Rep this weekend, the words imply a deep dig — a journey to the swirling, conflicted core of 21st-century identity. Specifically, the identity of an American Muslim.

Nikita Tewani, Ben Kahre, Brian Abraham and Soraya Broukhim.
Photo by Tony Duvall.

When we first meet Mahwish (Nikita Tewani) and Zarina (Soraya Broukhim), they are engaged in sisterly banter around the counter of a typical upscale kitchen. The conversation has the zip and zing of a screwball comedy — or perhaps something more Nora-Ephron-ish. The tone doesn’t change much when we meet their father, Afzal (Brian Abraham), a teddy bear of a man who is as doting as he is resolute in certain matters.

Afzal lost his wife to cancer a few years earlier, and his financial life rests on the laurels of a successful taxi-cab company he built. He’s a quintessential American patriarch whose main purpose in life is to find suitable husbands for his daughters. He is also a devout Muslim, which means his matchmaking is bounded by certain conditions, and he takes those conditions seriously. To wit: we first meet Mahwish’s future boyfriend Eli (Ben Kahre) when he shows up for a date with her, only to find that his meeting is actually with Afzal, who has hacked into her matchmaking account to screen her prospective love interests.

Soraya Broukhim and Nikita Tewani.
Photo by Tony Duvall.

When Mahwish’s long percolating book project enters the story, Afzal’s comic paternalism takes an intransigent turn. A fictional attempt to “humanize” The Prophet — focusing on the story in The Koran that is the genesis for the tradition of the hijab — it’s seen as heresy by her father. The Who and the What is the title of Mahwish’s book, and it suggests the explosive conflict between family and faith: her “what” — daughter, Muslim — at odds with her “who” — an intelligent, independent, questioning woman.

May Adrales directs a superb cast, actors that sparkle in the comic banter and dig deep into the thorny emotional conflicts. Abraham, in particular, conjures storms of rage that personalize the roiling collision between modernity and tradition, giving a human face to the all-too-abstract culture clash that’s a part of 21st century America.

Go See It: The Milwaukee Rep (108 E. Wells St.); The Who and the What, Sept. 27 – Nov. 5, 2017.

Reese Madigan and Deborah Staples.
Photo by Ross Zentner.

Even though it deals with the dark mysteries of the universe, there’s something positively sunny about Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson’s 2011 bio-play about Henrietta Leavitt, an early 20th century astronomer whose work with pulsing Cepheid variable stars lead to discoveries about the vastness of the universe. There are some serious — and some cosmic — issues here, but the new production at Next Act Theatre takes full measure of Gunderson’s witty character banter and occasional flights of metaphysical poetics.

We first meet Leavitt (radiantly played by Deborah Staples) as she’s invited to leave her home to work as a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory, one of the women who measure and catalog stars from the collection of photographic plates. The work is mundane and routine, but Leavitt makes her own discoveries and explores her theories on her own time.

It’s a fairly conventional story of woman fighting for a place in a male-dominated world, but Gunderson makes it sing, and director David Cecsarini finds just the right tone. He has help from a terrific ensemble cast. Reese Madigan is the timorous research assistant who takes a fancy to the new “computer.” Carrie Hitchcock is the appropriately named Annie Jump Cannon, a dispassionate team leader with suffragette dreams. Kelly Doherty gets all the best lines (delivered with perfect timing, and a pitch-perfect Scottish deadpan) as another colleague. And Karen Estrada is radiant as Henrietta’s sister, who tends to the home front while her sister is off measuring starlight.

It all ends beautifully with Walt Whitman, an inspiring paean (beautifully read by Madigan) to that universe that lives beyond the talk of Cepheid variable stars and Magellanic Clouds. You can hear it in Gunderson’s words and see it in Staples’s eyes as she “looks up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Go See It: Next Act Theatre (255 S. Water St.); Silent Sky, Sept. 28 – Oct. 22, 2017.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.