‘A Distinct Society’ at Writers Theatre Tackles Trump-Era Crisis at the Border

Stepping into the performance space of Writers Theatre, you know you are in for a treat. The Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre was designed by Studio Gang Architects, known worldwide for their state-of-the-art entertainment venue creations.

Writers Theatre moved into the custom space in 2016 after having originated as a company focused on the intimate aspects of live performance – with a magnifying glass on the words of captivating new and classic playwrights. Fittingly, the company obsessed with words started off in a small room at a bookstore in 1992.

Writers Theatre is now a nationally recognized theatrical company, with The Wall Street Journal calling it “America’s finest regional theater company.” They’ve earned over 150 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations, with dozens of wins.

Closing out its 2022-23 season under the leadership of Executive Director Kathryn Lipuma and Artistic Director Braden Abraham, Writers Theatre now presents the Midwest premiere of “A Distinct Society,” written and directed by Kareem Fahmy.

While the Writers Theatre performance space itself is a spectacle that promises the maximum theatrical experience, the way scenic designer Paige Hathaway has filled the space is incredible. Hathaway faithfully created the image of a rural library on the U.S.-Canada border circa 2016.

Both Hathaway and properties designer Rae Watson show meticulous attention to detail in creating a believable playing space for the cast of actors tasked with giving life to the words of Fahmy. From the intricate millwork on the moldings to the specific books on display in the library, everything works to create a very real, very believable and beautiful setting.

Hathaway keeps one element of the set a secret for the majority of the show. When it is revealed, her design is guaranteed to astound audiences.

Playing an equally compelling part in the storytelling process is the lighting design by Keith Parham and sound design by André Pluess. Thanks to this partnership of lights and sound, as well as some very skillful directorial decisions by Fahmy, the scene changes come to life as part of the storytelling process.

As the competition for attracting audiences has increased, so has the demand for less obtrusive scene changes. Thanks to advances in technology and the ever-evolving creativity of directors around the world, scene changes have become an art form unto themselves. The scene changes for “A Distinct Society” are little pieces of art that audiences would applaud except it would disrupt the action.

Inspired by true events, “A Distinct Society” is set in a small library that straddles the U.S.-Canada border. Misdrawn border lines resulted in the building extending into both countries. The entrance is on the U.S. side of the border and the books are on the Canadian side.

Due to this little loophole in international politics, when Donald Trump instituted his “Muslim ban,” separated families could skirt the law by using the library as a place to reunite for short visits. However, it didn’t make U.S. border patrol officers happy.

In the play, the library is run by a French-Canadian named Manon. Like many who enter the library field, Manon is someone who wants to help people, but wants to do it quietly.

A local teen named Declan has adopted the library as his personal refuge from a school where he doesn’t fit in and a home life where he feels invisible. His passion is the graphic novel, particularly those of DC Comics hero Green Lantern.

The other regular at the little library is a border officer named Bruce, a recent transplant from Detroit, trying to rebuild his career after having been blacklisted at another border post for disagreeing with his supervisor on how to handle a situation.

Peyman is an Iranian doctor, educated in the U.S. but residing in his homeland, who comes to Canada in order to use the library to visit his daughter, Shirin, who is in the U.S. on a student visa. Because of the travel ban, the two have not seen each other in over a year. They view the library as the perfect solution – except for Bruce’s presence.

Kate Fry portrays the central librarian Manon. From her accent to her physicality, she has every detail of the character mapped out and rehearsed to perfection. She wraps the audience around her finger from her first entrance.

Rom Barkhordar is a master of emotions as an Iranian father who just wants to see his daughter. He finds all the levels necessary to make Peyman a real person that audience members care about. It is a strong performance.

Also turning in a strong performance is Aila Ayilam Peck as Peyman’s daughter, Shirin. She shows off a young woman at a crossroads in terms of figuring out what she wants to do with her life and where she wants to live. She is Iranian but Americanized as well. Like the library, she straddles two cultures.

In fact, all the characters in the play are straddling cultures in some way. From Bruce as a Black man adjusting to life in rural Vermont to young Declan facing ridicule from his Canadian classmates for being an English-speaking transplant, everyone is trying to figure out a way to fit in.

Directing one’s own work can be a challenging undertaking. By trying to wear both hats, you eliminate the natural level of checks and balances to identify and manipulate potential problems in the material.

The bones of a great story are there with “A Distinct Society.” The idea of setting a play in such an unlikely and politically volatile locale is brilliant.

There are some really phenomenal moments in the script. In fact, there are instances where the word choices are so perfect you understand why a company called Writers Theatre would be chomping at the bit to perform this piece. Like any other new work, the script has some areas that could be improved upon, too.

Amir Abdullah as the border officer, and Cole Keriazakos as the show’s teen element both shine at moments. Future actors in the roles could benefit from reworking some of the dialogue.

Writers Theatre is known for its commitment to details and to exploring the power of the written word when interpreted by brilliant talents. “A Distinct Society” has moments of brilliance and some truly excellent performances.

Photos by Michael Brosilow

A variation of this review is published by Northwest Herald/Shaw Media.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area


If you appreciate the nature of my words here, I ask that you take just a moment to share this article with your social media of choice. Please help spread the word about The Life and Times of Rikki Lee Travolta to family and friends.


Follow me on Facebook Rikki Lee Travolta (/rikki.travolta), Facebook The Life and Times of Rikki Lee Travolta (/rikkileetravolta), LinkedIn (/rltravolta)  and Twitter (@RikkiLeeTV)


Don’t miss a review, feature story, news item, or editorial – Get every new Life and Times story delivered directly to your email!

Leave a Reply