The crux of writer-director Kareem Fahmy’s Midwest-premiere production of A Distinct Society at Writers Theatre is how people’s ability to treat others with kindness and compassion can be so easily undermined by conflicting loyalties and their own desire for security, belonging and love.
The play is set during Trump’s Muslim ban in a library straddling the border of Canada and the United States that’s seen as a sanctuary for visits between family members otherwise unable to have any physical contact. The most fascinating aspect of this production is how nuanced shifts in perspective and evolving feelings of love and loss lead the five characters to support, warm up to, reject and betray each other from scene to scene, and sometimes from moment to moment. Since the plot hinges on an anonymous Facebook post telling separated families to make a pilgrimage to the library, we’ll sum it up with the infamous relationship status update: It’s complicated.
Kate Fry, as the French Canadian librarian, plays these emotional shifts impeccably well. Her reserved Manon stands in stark contrast to the overly emotive, often maudlin matriarch she recently brought to vivid, heartbreaking life in The Cherry Orchard at the Goodman. Manon is lonely. Manon is a frustrated opera singer. Manon has secrets to reveal about her upbringing during the era of Quebec separatism. Manon may be falling in love with the U.S. Border Patrol agent, Bruce, played sympathetically by Amir Abdullah, who has been ordered to keep these families apart. As Manon’s motivations and past traumas are revealed like a flower whose petals are opened by fire only to fall away in embers, Fry is riveting to watch. Her performance takes the play to a higher level.
The Iranian father and daughter who keep trying and failing to meet up at the library stand in well for the many thousands of families kept apart by cruel and arbitrary immigration edicts. Peyman, played with equal parts pride and pique by Rom Barkhordar, is a heart surgeon in Tehran living on borrowed time. His daughter, Shirin, essayed by Aila Ayilam Peck as a young woman still trying to figure out exactly who she is and what she wants to do, is a medical student in the States.
Finally, teenage Declan, effectively depicted by Cole Keriazakos as an angsty, impulsive and needy young man with no friends and nowhere else to go, regularly skips school to check out the latest graphic novels Manon orders for him out of motherly instinct. Declan, whose parents came to rural Canada from Ireland for research jobs and then essentially abandoned him to be ridiculed and ostracized by classmates in his French immersion school, is obsessed with Green Lantern. He’s a DC Comics superhero and member in good standing of both the Justice League of America and the interstellar Green Lantern Corps, comprised of pure-hearted space cops who patrol their planetary sectors wearing rings that give them awesome powers.
The ebb and flow of the conflicting feelings and actions of these characters is more compelling than the will-they-or-won’t-they questions regarding the budding romance between Manon and Bruce and the missed connections between Peyman and Shirin, but it’s a thought-provoking play worth seeing nonetheless. Declan’s closing monologue about the virtues of the Green Lantern Corps and the lessons we should learn from it is as on-the-nose as you might expect a class presentation from an earnest, overwrought teen would be, but the message of humanity and hope it delivers is a good and important one just the same.
A Distinct Society runs through July 23 at Writers Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Michael Brosilow