ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’ “A Distinct Society” a Vague Memory of Long Ago

By Joanne Engelhardt

A wonderfully inviting library located exactly on the border between a small town in northern Vermont and a Quebecoise town is the setting for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of A Distinct Society.

There’s a cozy children’s nook filled not only with children’s books but also pint-sized furniture, an abacas and a couple of stuffed animals. But the real attention-getter in Jo Winiarski’s impressive set design is the two-foot-wide bookcase full of (what else?) books that runs up one side over the top and down the other side of the proscenium in the Mountain View Center of the Performing Arts.

Yet there’s one uninviting thing about the library: the wide strip of tape that runs straight down the middle of the library. Why? Because the left half is in the United States and the right half is in Canada.

Daughter Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian) and father Peyman (James Rana) reunite in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s World Premiere of “A Distinct Society”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

There are just five characters in Society, so each plays an important part in telling Kareem Fahmy’s fictionalized story of what happened at the Haskell Free Library & Opera House in 2017 when families separated by what was called the “Muslim ban” used the space to connect with each other. The ban didn’t allow citizens of seven Muslim countries to enter the U.S.

As the play opens, an Iranian father, Peyman (a serious, caring James Rana) enters the library with his passport and food he has prepared for his medical-student daughter, Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian), who lives in the U.S.

Because he arrived early, he just wants to sit in the library and wait to give Shirin food from home. But the big, burly U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Bruce (Kenny Scott) says he can’t stay. Shirin tries to give the food to Manon, the librarian (Carrie Paff), but she’s not willing to accept it because she says no food is allowed in the library.

Enter young, tousle-haired Declan (an appealing Daniel Allitt), who practically considers the library his home because his parents are divorced and he has no friends to chum around with. Declan has found ways to sneak into the library any time of the day or night, and he sometimes sleeps there as well. He also keeps a stash of soda and snack food that he consumes when no one’s around.

Smiling mischievously, Declan says, “Technically I don’t eat meat. But I do.”

In a rather strange turn of events, Manon reveals that she’ll be performing in the upstairs opera house, playing the title character in Bizet’s Carmen. Bruce invites her to have dinner with him before the opera, and she accepts. Later they return to the library where he convinces her to dance on a library table just as Carmen does in the opera. Bruce and Manon kiss a few times when suddenly she hears a noise.

Bruce (Kenny Scott) flirts with Manon (Carrie Paff) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s World Premiere of “A Distinct Society,” performing April 5-30. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Guess who’s the unintended witness to all of this? Of course: It’s Declan who’s been spending hours in the library reading what he calls “graphic novels” (actually fantasy comic books) and chowing down on his never-ending supply of junk food.

Though the actors’ performances are nuanced and well done, it’s the play itself that lets down their abilities. One example: too many topics are mentioned in passing such as the 1995 referendum asking Quebec citizens if they want to secede from Canada to form a “distinct society.” It’s touched on so quickly that many in the audience won’t understand or, more likely won’t even remember that time.

The play runs approximately 95 minutes without an intermission.


Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact:


ProductionA Distinct Society
Written by
Kareem Fahmy
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley in collaboration with Pioneer Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah
Production DatesThru Apr 30th
Production AddressMountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone(877) 662-8978
Tickets$29- $77
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
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