Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

A Distinct Society
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley / Pioneer Theatre Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent review of Grand Horizons

Kenny Scott, Carrie Paff, Daniel Allitt, and James Rana
Photo by Kevin Berne
An executive order on January 27, 2017, by a president barely one week in office barred citizens from seven countries–all majority Muslim–from entering the United States. Protests, legal challenges, and suits followed; but in the meantime, border agencies began reacting and enacting, often changing policies and procedures almost on a whim. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, in conjunction with Salt Lake City's Pioneer Theatre Company, is opening a world premiere production of Kareem Fahmy's A Distinct Society, a monumental new work that is extremely timely and important in the up-close, sensitive, and yet stark manner it shows how such declarations from on high can affect ordinary people, near and far. The playwright features five people who already are struggling to deal with their own stresses of daily life–job probation, bullying at school, non-ending back pain, worry of a daughter's health, pressures of med school–but who must also experience first-hand the harsh consequences that an order entitled "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" means for them.

The setting Kareem Fahmy has chosen is one near he grew up, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a national landmark of both Canada and the United States since the border of the two countries runs right through it. Half in Quebec and half in Vermont, with a taped line on the floor as a demarcation, the library became a meeting place in 2017 for families separated by Executive Order 13769 to meet in a kind of "no-man's land." On the stage of the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, scenic designer Jo Winiarski has stunningly re-created a remarkable replica of the turn of the century high-ceiling, windowed, book-packed center of a small community's life that is almost worth the price of the ticket just to see, especially when embellished by the lush, ever-shifting lighting design of Pamila Z. Gray.

French-Canadian Manon Desjardins is the Haskell's cheerful, sole librarian who frequently breaks into song and practices an aria from Carmen which she plans to sing in the upcoming amateur opera night in the library's auditorium (the only opera house in the U.S. without a stage since the stage is in Canada). While she is welcoming of all, she does have her rules about no food or drink, which leads her to carefully scrutinize the first visitor of the morning. An older, distinguished and foreign-looking man enters from the Canadian side and sits quietly in a comfy corner chair, clutching a bag of Tupperware containers emitting strong, spicy aromas. Before Manon can examine him closely, Officer Bruce Laird of the U.S. border patrol also arrives, all smiles and brimming with not-so-subtle compliments for the person he calls the "Top Lady" of the library. He is soon followed by the frequent explorer of the library's extensive collection of superhero comic books–excuse me, graphic novels–the "almost sixteen" Canadian boy, Declan, whose massive curls stick out of his turned-backward baseball cap and who every day has a different reason for why he is not in school ("period off," "doing extra credit," "working on independent study").

The older gentleman becomes increasingly nervous about the presence of this officer who wears a gun at his side. As he suddenly rushes to leave, the two accidentally bump into each other, sending one of his containers flying across the floor and dumping food. Not only is Manon upset (regarding her no-food policy), but Officer Laird immediately confronts the man, wanting to see his I.D. and what else he has in the bag. When a produced passport shows he is a citizen from The Islamic Republic of Iran, the tension levels rise all around, even as Peyman Gilani tries to explain he is only there to meet his daughter who is arriving after a four-hour trip from Boston where she is in medical school.

While it had been published on Facebook by a mysterious Elizabeth Bennett that this library is a safe place for separated families to meet, Officer Laird now tells him that the newest ruling is that these gatherings can only be for five minutes, with no gift exchanges–including the food Peyman has been cooking for three days to give to a daughter who is having severe dietary issues with American food. Confused, frustrated, and clearly saddened, Peyman leaves, promising to return another day. He has traveled halfway across the world to see his daughter and he is worried about her exhaustion and the care he feels she needs.

For the wide-eyed, Declan, who is hiding in the stacks, the whole episode has been "almost better than my graphic novel."

When daughter Shirin finally arrives a week later, the first of several separate visits by both she and her father are of no avail, as they keep missing each other and the border policies tighten to the point that, officially, no one with a passport from the seven prohibited countries is actually allowed inside–even on the Canadian half of the border library.

Kenny Scott's Officer Bruce Laird is a genial, good-hearted Black American who vacillates between outwardly expressing sympathy with the plights of Peyman and his daughter and feeling the heat from his supervisor to get tougher with these "people from a few countries whom we have to turn away." He clearly is more interested in flirting with Manon than watching out for supposed terrorists, and he does so with twinkling eyes and moves that alternate between bashful and bold. He tries his best to relate to Declan (or "The Dec" as he calls him) and to let the somewhat strange teenager know "I have your back," listening with pretended but good-natured interest to the boy's tales of the likes of Green Lantern. It is so easy to like Kenny Scott's Bruce except for the times when Officer Laird takes over.

Carrie Paff is a total delight as Manon. The Québécois-accented librarian's generous spirit and love for her job exude in her total being as she almost floats through her day as if on stage in one of the operas she clearly loves. Somewhat like Bruce Laird, she is torn between seeing that rules are followed to a "t"–hers and the border patrol's–and allowing, even aiding, clear abuses of both sets. Something exciting is happening within her when she is around Bruce, but her heart also clearly tugs over the unfair separation of Peyman and Shirin. Manon carries deep hurts of her own in regard to her father and deep beliefs about cultural freedom as a Québécois; and those weigh heavily as she tries to balance rules and rights. Carrie Paff packs all the deeply felt, sometimes conflicting parts of Manon into a powerful, impacting portrayal.

The father-daughter relationship of Peyman and Shirin is beautiful and heartbreaking to behold, even as the two are repeatedly unable to connect in the same space at the same time. As the soft-spoken, Persian-accented Peyman, James Rana brings deep dignity of character and visible vulnerability. A renowned surgeon in his own country, in this library he is sometimes viewed with concern and caring, sometimes with distaste and distrust. Through it all, his deeply set eyes stay focused on his mission to, even for a few minutes, see his daughter, played by Vaneh Assadourian in yet another stirring, striking performance from this exceptional cast. There is an anger seething in her toward anyone she deems as keeping her from seeing her father; yet at the same time, there are fears and stresses that transform her from rigidity and harshness to fragility and near collapse.

Making his professional acting debut as Declan is Daniel Allitt, and if this performance is any indication, there is a fabulous career awaiting on many more stages to come. Whether during a romantic rendezvous on a stormy night, a secret meeting against all regulations, or a major confrontation where gun is drawn, Declan somehow always seems to be somewhere in a corner reading a graphic novel, sipping a forbidden soda, and listening wide-eyed with cocked, curly head. And while he joyfully and animatedly tells tales of universal truths as told in his books of out-of-this-world heroes, Declan carries within him a real world of family disappointments and school-based torments. While his is not the racist-based situation of Peyman or Shirin, Declan is experiencing his own very real version of prejudice in a French-speaking school where being a red-headed Irish immigrant is his own version of "languagist" hell.

The term "a distinct society" arose in the 1970s to describe a growing part of the French-speaking population that no longer felt a part of Canada. At a time when American policy suddenly declared that certain groups of people should no longer be a part of the U.S., each of these everyday, non-political people introduced in Kareem Fahmy's powerful script is in various ways a member of their own distinct society. A Black man in northern, mostly white Vermont; a kid who is forced by law to go to an all-French school because he arrived in Quebec as an immigrant; a young Iranian woman whose visa depends on her staying in medical school; a woman who in 1995 unsuccessfully voted for Quebec to separate from Canada; and of course, a man who wants to hug the daughter who is in a country only inches away but one he cannot enter because he is deemed a potential terrorist–each is a member of a distinct society, and all are just ordinary people like you and me.

The message of A Distinct Society is not unlike the final message of Martin Niemöller's poem about those imprisoned by Nazis, "Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me." TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's world-premiere production of A Distinct Society is a wake-up call for us all to hear that the border concerns of others are the concerns of us all, for each of us is in some way a member of our own "distinct society" that may someday be defined by someone as "not a part."

A Distinct Society runs through April 30, 2023, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 877-662-8978. Please note: All patrons must securely wear masks inside the theatre.