‘English,’ a West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (***)

Mehry Eslaminia is radiant as Elham, an Iranian medical student trying to learn English in the West Coast premiere of Sanaz Toosi’s award-wining play, “English.”

by Charles Kruger

Sanaz Toosi’s play, “English,” about language, culture, and personal identity, is set in an adult school classroom in Taraj (near Tehran) where several Iranian students are studying English as a second language. It asks the question, is it possible to remain yourself while speaking and thinking in someone else’s language? At what cost to selfhood do we move beyond the boundaries of our own culture?

Each of the students is preparing to take the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) for various reasons. One wishes to communicate with her grandhildren in Canada, where she hopes to emigrate. Another  wishes to attend medical school in Australia, where she is provisionally accepted provided she passes the test. The only man in the group is hoping to get a Green Card to work in America, and the youngest student is just enthusiastic to learn another language. Their teacher, Marjans, love English and has happy memories of the years she spent at school in Manchester, England.

The characters speak in fractured, painful English as well as fluent Farsi. In an interesting and effective ploy, the playwright has them actually speaking English all the time – so English audiences can comprehend everything. We know when they fall into Farsi because that is when their speaking is relaxed and idiomatic. We quickly realize that these are different people when they are in their own language and when trying to speak another. To learn English, it seems, they must unlearn themselves.

Roya longs to reconnect with her son and his family who have emigrated to Canada. Her son is raising his daughter as a Canadian, and Farsi, Roya believes, will have no place in their lives. To be Grandma, she must become Canadian. She speaks first of her ambivalence at losing her son, but gradually realizes that in the process of learning English, she is losing something even greater.

The character who is most profoundly affected by this conflict, and who describes it most articulately, is the medical student, Elham. Elham is terrified of the exam—she has failed to pass over five previous attempts. She’s angry at her inability  to communicate in English. In Farsi, she is a brilliant scientist. In English, she feels like a fool. She complains she is not herself in English. In English, who can tell that she is funny, and smart, and caring, and nice? In English, she feels mean, and scared, and nasty, and believes she sounds like a fool fit only as an object of derision. She hates it. Mehry Eslamania is wonderful in the role, capturing these multiple aspects of Elham’s personality and demonstrating the dilemma being explored: how to maintain your own identity when faced with the necessity of taking on another?

As the instructor, Marjan, Sahar Babiyan captures a lot of ambivalence. Marjan loves English, and savors the ability to develop a second personality. And yet, she understands that something has been lost and now that she is back in her native land, she feels like a stranger, neither here nor there, neither her old self or her new self.

The other characters deal with these issues with various degrees of passion and intensity. “English” is a very interesting, funny, intelligent play with lively, engaging characters.

The performers and creative team deliver Toossi’s text with enthusiasm and insight. “English” runs at Berkeley Repertory’s Peets Theatre through May 7 2023. For further information, click here.


Rating: *** (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)


“English” by Sanaz Toosi, west coast premiere produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Director: Mina Morita. Scenic Design: Annie Smart. Costume Design: Shahrzad Mazaheri. Lighting Design: Reza Behjat. Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel. Cast: Marjan: Sahar Babiyan. Elham: Mehry Eslamania. Roya: Sarah Nina Hayon. Omid: Amir Malaklou. Goli: Christine Mirzayan.

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