Review: 'American Underground' imagines a chamber-of-horrors America

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PITTSFIELD — Brent Askari's "American Underground" — which is being given a workmanlike world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage — imagines a not-too-distant-future America in which Muslims are in the cross-hair of a brutally intolerant authoritarian government that is determined to isolate and then eradicate them, first by "encouraging" them to move into special Muslim-only neighborhoods; then forcing them into these eventually walled-in sections; then internment camps where, if rumors of a pending "proposition" are true, they will be killed. It's not a far remove from Germany, ghettos, concentration camps, gas chambers.

But unlike the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe who had little sense of what was in store for them, in Askari's setting, some Muslims, fearing the worst, are going underground, hiding from government patrols and trying to link up with a new American Underground Railroad known as The Network, which, through its system of safe houses, gets them out of the United States. Members of The Network who are exposed and caught face imprisonment, torture, "reeducation," possibly death.

The setting for "American Underground" is a neat, trim South Florida suburban house — skillfully designed by Mariana Sanchez — that is the home of a middle-class interracial couple, Rog (Alan H. Green), who is black, and his Latina wife, Anna (Natascia Diaz). Their 18-year-old son, Jeff (Justin Withers), is home from college on a break. It is his narrative, spoken from a vantage point of time, that frames the play's story, which takes in a young Muslim woman, Sherri (Rasha Zamamiri), and a tough, formidable government security agent named Kourtney (a generally convincing if, at times, overly heavyhanded Kathleen McNenny).

As played by Withers, Jeff is unsure of the tumult, cruelty, fear and caution that surrounds him. At the play's beginning, he comes home shaken by an incident earlier in the evening during a social outing to a nearby mall with his friends where some bodies of Network members have been hung in full public display, the letter T for traitor marked on their bodies.. He is impulsive, confused. His unguarded responses to the frightening, government-controlled world around him is a source of fear and concern for his mother. Jeff is thrown even more off balance with the middle-of-the-night appearance at their patio door of a young Muslim woman, Sherri, who has been given his family's address as a safe house. And so the revelations come, slowly, in measured fashion, building to the arrival of Kourtney, who is fiercely committed to her job and is part of a team of agents who suspect that the book club to which Anna belongs is, in fact, a Network cell.

The stakes are high. Kourtney's visit, her unyielding granitic determination to expose Anna and her family has consequences for everyone in the neatly appointed living room. From the moment of Kourtney's knock on the front door, nothing for anyone in the house will be the same.

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"American Underground" is a thoughtful piece that, for the most part, hashes over familiar arguments and perceptions. Askari has packed a good deal into the play — one reference to possible government manipulation of the media feels gratuitous and manipulative. The conversations are vigorous, impassioned and persuasively waged by a uniformly adept cast that is particularly successful in conveying just what it takes in human terms to survive in a cruel, inhumane society. But, Askari does wear his heart on his sleeve. This is not an atmosphere given to subtlety or nuance.

Askari breaks the main action of the play with occasional addresses to the audience, some of which are powerful and haunting — Sherri's explanation of how she became separated from her family and a runaway; another by Anna which addresses her transition from quiet unassuming librarian to activist.

Until it collapses into melodrama shortly after Kourtney's arrival, director Julianne Boyd's production moves along at a steady, purposeful clip.

Green and Diaz' Rog and Anna are two decent people doing the best they can to protect their own while, at the same time, doing their part of rescue the country they love from a nightmare that appears to have little hope of ending anytime soon.

Zamamiri's finely rendered Sherri is caught in the ironic situation of finding the freedom her family sought in coming to America by leaving it.

In many ways, "American Underground" is Jeff's play; about his coming of age; his growth from a naive, eager, bewildered adolescent 18-year-old to a more mature, savvy young adult; mature and savvy enough to appreciate the nuances of what it means to put something underground.


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