Review: ‘A Distinct Society’ at TheatreWorks (**1/2)

by Otto Coelho

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

It has been six years since the last presidential administration instituted a ban on travel into the US from counties whose majority population practiced the Muslim faith. Personally, I found the travel ban cruel, heartless, and idiotic–and it was at the beginning of an administration whose policies were mostly cruel, heartless and idiotic. Not being a follower of Islam, this policy did not affect me personally; however, I am someone who possesses empathy for others, and it angers me when my country and the people who lead it engage in hurtful actions. As a human being, how could it not?

“A Distinct Society” is set during this time period at a place that actually exists: The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the Vermont/Canada border. Straddling the border made it a “neutral zone,” where families could meet with each other while technically not violating any policies. Playwright Kareem Fahmy allows us to see into a group of disparate people–a father and daughter, a librarian, a Border Patrol officer, and a fifteen year old Green Lantern junkie. All of them ache for connection.

Carrie Paff shines as head librarian Manon Dejardins. Fahmy has giving Paff, and Paff handles the fine line that Manon has to tread with great skill and nuance. As Iranian physician Peyman Gilani, James Rana gives a subtle performance as a man who knows that he has to use a great deal of caution to stay on the right side of the authorities. Vaneh Assadourian is good as his daughter, Shirin.

Giovanna Sardelli directs the complicated text well, utilizing Jo Winiarski’s absolutely gorgeous set. At times, however, it seemed that the stakes for most of the characters just weren’t high enough. There needed to be more behind the connections the characters were trying to make: more hunger, more need, more immediacy. Transitions between scenes were a bit clunky. Costumes by Dina El-Aziz hit the right notes and helped to inform the period.

It’s not that this staging of “A Distinct Society” isn’t good;  it just doesn’t quite get where it needs to go. .

“A Distinct Society” continues at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through April 30. For more information, click here.


Rating: **1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)


“A Distinct Society” by Kareem Fahmy. Produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Director: Giovanna Sardelli. Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski. Costume Design: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Design: Pamila Z. Gray. Sound Design: Elton Bradman. Cultural Consultant: Torange Yeghiazarian. French Canadian Dialect Coach:  Janel Miley. Persian Dialect Coach: Sarah Shippobotham. Intimacy Coordinator: Maya Herbsman. Artist Counselor: Judith Nihei.

Cast: Peyman Gilani: James Rana. Manon Dejardins: Carrie Paff. Bruce Laird: Kenny Scott. Declan Sheehan: Daniel Allitt. Shirin Gilani: Vaneh Assadourian.

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