Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Distinct Society
All of the action takes place in the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a real location that has straddled the border between Vermont and Quebec for better than a century. In the wake of the Trump-Era Muslim ban, Manon, the librarian and "Top Lady" of the place, makes an anonymous post on Facebook offering the library as a potential meeting spot for those separated from loved ones by the ban. This sparks a conflict that comes to involve: a Black Customs and Border Protection Officer; a misfit 16-year-old boy, Irish by birth, who finds himself alienated from both his family and peers; and an Iranian father and daughter, who are desperate to connect with one another again.
Where the play succeeds is in its well-drawn, complex characters. But it also occasionally stumbles in that complexity. One issue in this regard is that the complexity is not evenly distributed among the characters. The backstory for Bruce, the CBP Officer, has promise, but what the audience knows is sketched out in careful language about "the last guy" and "this guy" and their various policies on border security that may be realistic for the character, but also reads too easily as a kind of tiptoeing that undercuts the play's ability to tackle the issues it's interested in.
In contrast, Manon's story is quite detailed, culminating in major revelations about her past very near the play's end. This leaves things feeling somewhat rushed, and at least one character's motivation in making a choice with high-stakes consequences for all concerned is rather under-explored in a way that is unsatisfying.
There are also some issues with with structure that strain believability. For example, near the play's end, Manon shows no particular eagerness to have Bruce leave as their date comes to an end, which is peculiar, given the revelation that she has been hiding the two Iranian characters to allow them a family visit, in defiance of policy changes on the U.S. side. That said, the great majority of the play is original and laudable in its willingness to explore difficult material that resists simple answers.
Paige Hathaway's scenic design crafts an inviting and beautifully detailed backdrop for the characters' interactions. Manon's mammoth circulation desk occupies most of the upstage left area. The rest of the upstage wall offers glimpses out the window and, in conjunction with Brian Elston's lighting design, conveys the passage of time. Downstage, Hathaway pairs a sagging vintage couch with a sleeker, more up-to-date armchair, as well as a children's reading area, complete with undersized table and chair to give the audience a sense of Manon's character through the pride she takes in making the library a welcoming space to a variety of patrons.
Izumi Inaba's costumes expand on the characters, most clearly and attractively in Manon, whose clothes range from a very "librarianish" yet still stylish jumper, to a full-skirted red velvet dress for her amateur turn as Carmen at the library-hosted community night. Inaba also makes choices that ably provide characterization in unexpected ways. Shirin's miniskirt and leather jacket serve as a subtle signal that the audience should not, perhaps, take the story that she is an ill-fed, overworked medical student at face value. And in the play's climactic scene, the fact that Bruce, the CBP officer, wears a bulky cable-knit sweater beneath his vest speaks volumes about his determination to make his posting "in the sticks" and his potential relationship with Manon work.
As Manon, Kate Fry creates a grounded, believable, and thoroughly charismatic character. There is little difficulty believing that Bruce would fall for her, young Declan would ride the bus for an hour to read his graphic novels in her library, rather than one closer to home, or that Peyman and Shirin would trust her. But it's important to note that Fry is equally effective in Manon's less attractive moments. She conveys Manon's pain, both mental and physical, effectively and channels it into believable irritation, anger, and demands for accountability from the other characters.
As Bruce, Amir Abdullah offers a mix of charm and awkward bumbling. He connects well with Cole Keriazakos as Declan and has strong chemistry with Fry. As the situation unravels near the end of the play, Abdullah steers clear of anything one-note. Bruce makes bad decisions, but he also attempts to de-escalate, and both beats come across convincingly to help carry an important moment that rests on some shakiness in the text.
Rom Barkhordar as Peyman does well handling both the nervous tension of the role as well as the warmth and confidence of the character in his later interactions with Manon and Shirin. In a moment that particularly stands out, Barkhordar listens with deeply empathetic attention as Declan unloads about his broken family, then answers with compassion as well as a firm demand for respect for himself and Manon. It's a small thing that sheds tremendous light on Peyman as father, and thus on Shirin's experience.
Aila Ayilam Peck has a take on Shirin that seems somewhat younger than a (presumed) medical student ought to be. It's an interesting choice that draws her closer to Declan in emotional maturity and, perhaps, conveys the idea that her impulsiveness is the "cost" of loving, supportive parenting, particularly for a young woman whose parents have already paved the way in terms of migration.
Cole Keriazakos as Declan has to contend with the character whose experience is the least fleshed out. This leaves him with a more restricted emotional register to work with. This is not entirely unrealistic, given that the character is certainly at an age where everything goes to eleven, emotionally speaking, but some of his more subdued interactions with Bruce are among the most successful, leading one to wish for more layers for the actor to work with.
A Distinct Society runs through July 23, 2023, at Writers Theatre, Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.writerstheatre.org or call 847-242-6000.