A Distinct Society explores playwright Kareem Fahmy’s identity as a child of Middle Eastern immigrants during a time of political strife. (L–R: Vaneh Assadourian and Emmet Smith)

A Distinct Society: Love, Loss and Understanding

Performance & Theatre

Abdullah Khalil and Vaneh Assadourian in A Distinct Society by Pioneer Theatre Company
Photo courtesy of BW Productions

A Distinct Society

January 27 – February 11, 2023
Monday—Thursday, 7 p.m.
Friday & Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, 2 p.m.

Brought to life by the Pioneer Theatre Company, A Distinct Society entertains and evokes emotion through a provocative web of intertwined storylines. Although it’s difficult to zone in on a prominent theme, there is one recurring motive bridging the gaps between the characters—our innate desire to belong. The script serves as an ode to the playwright Kareem Fahmy’s rural upbringing a 30-minute drive from the Haskell Free Library in Quebec. Fahmy explores the feelings that occurred as a result of examining his identity as a child of Middle Eastern immigrants during a time of political strife. 

The fictional narrative occurs in and out of the real-life Haskell Free Library and Opera House on the US/Canada border. For a one-act play, my hat goes off to the set designers and production team for creating such a visually captivating environment. The library where the entire play takes place is ornately decorated with mahogany bookshelves that tower over downstage. The large windows in the back push the story along with realistic weather changes and intense mood lighting. The border between the two countries is physically demonstrated as a thick, black line of paint dividing the interior of the building into halves.

The audience quickly learns about the play’s five characters—a disgruntled teenager, the Head Librarian, a US Border Patrol Officer and an Iranian father and daughter—and their intentions through their vibrant personalities and offbeat reactions. There are a few Shakespearean moments in which other characters listen in on conversations to further the plot, which is fresh and amusing—there is something comedic about using bookshelves as hiding spots that adds relief to the suspense. The thick border serves as an antagonistic character, forcing the other characters to opposite sides during action scenes and continuously reminding the audience that, even during tender moments, there is a divisiveness that can never fully be disintegrated. 

Lined with a stellar cast, no one performance outshines the others. Each actor lends a three-dimensional approach to their character and the world that they exist in. Ailing Iranian doctor Peyman (Abdullah Khalil) is desperately seeking his chronically anxious daughter, Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian), who has traveled from Boston to safely meet with her father for the first time in over a year. Their reunion is superficially revolving around their cultural food and generational recipes, which Peyman is intent on giving to his daughter. When reunited with her father who is concerned about her frail state, Shirin responds, “I needed you, and I needed your food.” Their dialogue explores how the stress of being outcasted and “othered” can manifest in the body and that the way to remedy this constant fear is through home comforts. Khalil naturally embodies Peyman’s fearless attitude as he relentlessly tries to pursue a meeting with Shirin despite discriminatory laws and barriers. When describing why he is so determined, he says, “Home is not a country—home is my family.”

Corey Jones and Carrie Paff in A Distinct Society
Photo courtesy of BW Productions

The chemistry between the lonely US Border Patrol officer Bruce (Corey Jones) and the eccentric French-Canadian Library Manager Manon (Carrie Paff) is awkward and electric. The two crave companionship but are committed to opposing causes and must choose between their own needs and the needs of others at the risk of their budding romance. Their push-and-pull dynamic is unveiled as deep-seeded emotional trauma, which propels the rising action to an apex in an unforgettable conclusion. 

15-year-old Irish immigrant Declan (Emmet Smith) connects these characters. He is an outcast due to his view of French-Canadian cultural elitism, bullied at school and unwanted by a broken family. He spends most of his time in the library with a fixation on the Green Lantern graphic novel series, honing in on of the themes of fearlessness, hope and compassion—three qualities that Declan seems to struggle to implement. 

Smith portrays Declan as naive and reactionary, and he successfully zeroes in on the agony of pubescent hormones and displaced priorities. Throughout the play, Declan facilitates a subplot following the fictional Green Lantern Corps, which correlates to the events happening in his world. In doing so, he helps fictionalize the heartbreak, prejudice and sacrifice that is happening into a reductive “Good vs. Evil,” which many of us are too quick to do today.

Patrons of the arts and those with some extra time on their hands should make a visit to the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre and settle in for a visceral experience. –Ashton Ellis

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Ariana Broumas Farber’s DREAMERS: A Portrait of America
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