Between the United States and Canada lies not only the longest international border in the world but also, by far, the longest unprotected one. The two countries share language, history, alliances, overlapping culture and food, and much more. Until the evolution of the European Union, movement of people was the most unobstructed between two countries anywhere. That has changed somewhat in the 21st century. Broadly, differences in immigration policy for the undocumented and the Covid pandemic began to inhibit people flow. One specific restriction enacted by the Trump administration in 2017 also stood out – the Muslim Travel Ban and its aftermath.
Playwright Kareem Fahmy taps into the American unease with Islam in his clever dramedy, “A Distinct Society,” but he introduces other dimensions to the storyline as well. The TheatreWorks world premiere production, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, possesses superb stagecrafting and wonderful acting.
Politically, northern New Hampshire is most noted for Dixville Notch, which is the first precinct to announce its vote for the U.S. Presidency every four years. But 20 miles north exists the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, straddling the border between the U.S. and Quebec Province in Canada as a result of a surveying error that occurred before the library was built. A line on the floor designates the border. The playwright has deftly used this real-life anomaly as the crucible for the play’s conflicts.
A kerfuffle arises as a result of a social media posting which suggests that the library is a good crossborder meeting place. The message is not lost on Muslims, particularly families with members on both sides of the divide. Peyman (played by James Rana) is an Iranian-Canadian physician whose daughter Shirin (played by Vaneh Assadodurian) lives in the U.S. Although they both live hours from the library, efforts to meet his daughter are central to the action. To begin with, they suffer poor timing, but then Homeland Security steps in with the restriction that meetings cannot exceed five minutes and that no gifts can be given – even food. And not only is Peyman a good chef, but Shirin has not been eating properly, and her father is sure that home-cooked Iranian cuisine is the solution. The challenges of meeting will go from bad to worse.
Two subplots complement the central action. The more direct concerns Manon, the library manager, who is Quebecois, and is played with consummate skill by Bay Area veteran Carrie Paff. She dances and sings tracts from the opera “Carmen” and speaks with a charming French accent. Manon sympathizes with those trying to meet up, but she has her own rules that she enforces, and she is obligated to follow DHS rules as well. They are reluctantly but emphatically enforced by Bruce (Kenny Scott), who also has a crush on Manon, though their backgrounds and interests differ vastly.
In another thread, Daniel Allitt, in a commanding first professional role, portrays Declan, an Irish-born, 15-year-old who comes to Haskell regularly from an hour away. His pretext is the library’s graphic novel collection, but we later learn of his desire to escape the ridicule he faces in Quebec. He often reads aloud from the novels, which focus on good and evil and distract at first, but ultimately the purpose comes through.
As disparate as these three substories seem, they make subtle but profound connections through their subtexts. Fahmy shows in multiple contexts how the rigidity of rules can subvert humanity. He also plumbs the importance of family and various dimensions of discrimination, trust, and ultimately, the power of love to stop people from destroying one another. Finally, issues are expressed and implied about society and country, including the not always clear categorization of patriot versus terrorist. His clay in molding these lessons and moral questions is comprised of five characters who we care about but who are flawed like real people.
Surprisingly, the play’s title does not refer to Islam. In the Quebec separatist movement, climaxing in the 1995 vote for independence, the thematic appeal of the separatists was that Quebec was “a distinct society.” And though the legal issues that pertain to the play are national level, U.S. to Canada, the sociocultural issues that derive from Quebec being French speaking, loom large.
“A Distinct Society” is highly involving. With its complexity, many issues are broached, resulting in a number of denouements. The actors are well cast and convincing in their roles. Jo Winiarski’s scenic design is stunning in its overall look and detail. Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting and Elton Bradman’s sound equally impress as they complement the set.
“A Distinct Society,” written by Kareem Fahmy, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through April 30, 2023.