Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Cross-border library site of 'A Distinct Society'


Manon (Carrie Paff) greets Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian) in the library. (Kevin Berne photo)

The border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, runs right through the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. It’s marked with tape across the library floor.

This actual geographic anomaly is the setting for Kareem Fahmy’s “A Distinct Society,” being given its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in association with Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City.

The play takes place in November 2017 after the Trump administration imposed the so-called Muslim ban, which at the time didn’t allow citizens of seven majority Muslim countries to enter the United States.

Therefore, the library became a place where families separated by the ban could see one another.

In the play, Peyman Gilani (James Rana), a 50-year-old Iranian cardiac surgeon has gone there to see his daughter, Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian), a medical student in the U.S., and to give her some food.

Food is against library rules, says librarian Manon Desjardins (Carrie Paff), a French Canadian known as a Québécoise.

Furthermore, Bruce Laird (Kenny Scott), a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to the area, tells Peyman that he has only five minutes to visit with his daughter before he must leave.

Declan Sheehan (Daniel Allitt), a teenager from Ireland who is forced to attend a French language school in Quebec, sees much of this because he hangs out at the library.

Part of the reason is that he’s an avid fan of its fantasy adventure comic books, which he calls graphic novels. Another part is that his classmates give him a hard time, and he has no friends.

In the meantime, Bruce flirts with Manon, who agrees to have dinner with him before she plays the title character in Bizet’s “Carmen” in the opera house upstairs. After the opera, they return to the library, where he persuades her to dance on a table, which Carmen does in the opera.

Complications arise as Bruce tries to enforce the tougher rules dictated by his supervisor.

During the course of the play, the characters reveal more about themselves and their family backgrounds.

For example, Manon talks about the 1995 referendum asking Quebec citizens if they wanted to secede from Canada and form a distinct society. It failed in the close vote. Her parents had opposite views that eventually ended their marriage.

This production is skillfully directed by Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks artistic associate and director of New Works, who elicits fine performances from all five actors.

Paff, for example, is a Bay Area favorite who creates a nuanced character. However, the character’s French accent tends to distance viewers who must focus on each word rather than the overall meaning.

The other characters also are multi-faceted, quite human and believable.

Jo Winiarski’s detailed, inviting set is filled with book-lined shelves, a children’s corner, a comfortable sofa and that border tape on the floor.

Costumes by Dina El-Aziz, lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and sound by Elton Bradman enhance the production.

Running about an hour and 35 minutes with no intermission, “A Distinct Society” will continue through April 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and more information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit www.theatreworks.org.