SALT LAKE CITY — Art that emphasizes everyone’s shared humanity and encourages its audience to overcome their differences is not new. But alas, humans fail to be tolerant, to embrace diversity, and to recognize their similarities. From Romeo and Juliet through midcentury masterpieces like To Kill a Mockingbird, audiences have many places to turn for this lesson, including a new play receiving its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company: A Distinct Society. Playwright Kareem Fahmy conceives themes are not new, but they are relevant and important.
A Distinct Society is set in a slow and quiet library that straddles the border of Vermont and Canada, with its dual political jurisdiction leading to muddled ideas of who actually has jurisdiction over the library. The story offers varying political ideas through the lenses of the five characters ranging from an American border patrol agent, a Canadian, a French-Canadian, and an Iranian father-daughter duo. Each character is drawn to the remote library for unique reasons. Their interactions with each other are dispersed with kindness and friendship, but also hostility and prejudice. The scenes painted in A Distinct Society force the characters to choose to view each other as fellow humans with real emotions and needs, or to align with their preconceived sense of duty and built up cultural walls. The greatest element of Fahmy’s writing is the character development he creates; the audience getting a glimpse into each character’s pasts and vulnerabilities.
The set of the library is framed by sturdy wood bookshelves containing books of all sizes, shapes, and colors creating an air of an actual library so effective one can nearly smell the pages of the old books. Jo Winiarski’s design was polished with a backdrop of large windows topped in stained glass, book carts, a leather lounger, and a turn-of-the-century fainting sofa. The warm, authentic set was complete with a warm and authentic cast.
The five-person cast had powerful chemistry that created genuine scenes in which I felt like a fly on the wall, watching as the events take place in this quaint border town library. Each actor in this show gave a wonderful and believable performance, the standout performance coming from Emmet Smith. Smith plays Declan, an angsty teenage boy with absentee parents who fills his emptiness with comic books and the company of other adult regulars of the library. Smith shows Declan’s loneliness stemming from a missing father, the estrangement from is French-Canadian peers and how that hurts him, all topped with some comedic relief in his interactions with the other characters. At times, I could feel the character’s hurt as Smith’s portrayal was so convincing. Smith was especially fantastic when Declan reveals he is alone at the library on his 16th birthday and when telling of the origination of the nickname “Dickless” given by his peers.
Carrie Paff also delivers as Manon, the librarian. Paff has a haughty French-Canadian accent and gives considerable variety in her performance. Paff as Manon is at times a grumpy librarian, a kind-hearted philanthropist, and a woman engaging in a dangerous new love interest. Manon also has moments of vulnerability while delivering her exposition, taking the audience on a journey of Quebec fighting for recognition of as a distinct society, apart from Canada. Paff’s delivery is so vivid and vibrant that it felt as compelling to listen to her as it would have been to watch the events on stage.
While there are many strengths in this production — particularly the well written characters and professional acting — this was not a potent or resounding play for me. A Distinct Society is a good play but misses greatness. The script is thoughtful and offers differing points of view and politics. The characters are interesting, but it took too long for their stories and paths to cross in a meaningful and moving way. When it finally happened, I found it to be underwhelming after all the tedious build up. While most scenes were satisfying from a directorial standpoint, the climax is where director Giovanna Sardelli could have packed more of an emotional punch. The resolution and denouement felt strangely timed and lacked the sincerity of the rest of the play; it just all sort of happened and was over. Fahmy’s script would be more effective if it moved more quickly through the less important scenes of the play and more fully developed an ending scene where it all comes together. This would give the audience time to digest and feel the consequences of the characters choices and actions as the consequences of intolerance is the real point of the play.
Despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, I enjoyed A Distinct Society and am always appreciative to have Pioneer Theatre Company that cares enough to give Utah audiences the chance to see new works and world premieres. While the script and parts of the execution fell short of greatness, A Distinct Society is still a production worth seeing.