“A Distinct Society” receives a worthy world premiere at PTC

Sat Jan 28, 2023 at 1:24 pm
Corey Jones and Carrie Paff in Kareem Fahmy’s A Distinct Society at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: BW Productions

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is a real place that straddles the U.S.–Canada border in the towns of Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec. Visit its website and the first thing you’ll see, beneath a photo of the handsome Victorian building, is an announcement: “Family/friends reunions (cross-border visits) are not allowed.”

In Kareem Fahmy’s A Distinct Society—set in the winter after Donald Trump restricted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, but before the Haskell Free Library stopped allowing cross-border reunions—the library is a liminal space where five characters make and miss connections. Pioneer Theatre Company gave the world premiere of Fahmy’s one-act play Friday night.

Fahmy has deftly taken a real-life situation, in which the uniquely situated library briefly became a destination for dozens of families separated by immigration policy, and populated it with well-rounded, satisfyingly complicated characters. The adage that “hurt people hurt people” plays out as a parallel to the conflicts between nations as a harried librarian tries to reconcile the often-competing interests of a father and daughter desperate to reunite, a sympathetic border official who feels trapped by regulations, and a troubled teen who just wants to read in peace. Fahmy weaves threads of duty, mercy, regret and sacrifice into a coherent and satisfying ninety minutes.

The playwright doesn’t shy from his characters’ rigidity, petulance, snark and other unappealing traits, but instead allows them to show us why they behave as they do. Often this happens in speeches that, thanks to the skill of the actors and of director Giovanna Sardelli, engender compassion rather than feeling expository. Likewise, frequent references to Carmen and firearms seem to hint at violence to come, but when those hints go unrealized, Fahmy leaves us feeling that our expectations have been cleverly subverted rather than that we’ve been tricked.

The play’s central character is Manon, a Québécoise librarian whose struggle to balance rules and humanity has begun to manifest in physical pain. In Carrie Paff’s nuanced performance, we see the strain behind Manon’s relentless effort to do right by everyone; we can feel the tension melt away when she finds respite in singing opera.

Photo: BW Productions

Corey Jones, as rule-bound U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Bruce, has one of the more challenging tasks in the play. Bruce’s determined romantic pursuit of Manon teeters on the edge of overbearance, but the actor radiates so much kindness and charm that we can see why she finds him appealing.

Abdullah Khalil—a medical professional in real life—is Peyman, a respected cardiac surgeon who has traveled from Tehran for a five-minute reunion with his daughter, Shirin, a medical student. His fatherly concern is palpable, as is the skittishness he assiduously holds in check. “I choose to believe that all will be well,” he declares, and somehow we walk away with the sense that it will.

Vaneh Assadourian takes a trope we’ve seen countless times, the immigrant daughter burdened by parental expectations, and brings her to life. Brittle and resentful at first, she softens when she finally connects with her dad, and—like Manon—she lights up when allowed to express her true self.

Ultimately, though, the most memorable performance comes from Emmet Smith as Declan, the teenage boy who finds refuge in the library and the Green Lantern graphic novels he reads there.  Smith gives us much more than a nerdy, alienated adolescent; we also glimpse his carefully guarded vulnerability. When his abandonment issues bubble over in a well-timed outburst, the moment is painfully real. The actor also held Friday’s audience silent and spellbound in an epilogue that, assisted by a simple but magical stage effect, feels positively Shakespearean.

Jo Winiarski’s set, enhanced by Dina El-Aziz’s costumes and Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting, functions as a sixth character. It’s a safe bet that at least half of Friday’s audience wished they could move into this library, with its proscenium made of books and its cozy furnishings.

A Distinct Society runs through Feb. 11. pioneertheatre.org

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