Tara Grammy (left) and Pooya Mosheni in "English." Photo by Rich Soublet II
It’s been said that for someone who doesn’t speak it to begin with, English is the hardest language to learn. For a small group of students in Karaj,near Tehran, preparing to take the TOEFL exam, the degree of difficulty is much more profound than mere pronunciation, syntax or the art of conversation.
A deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year, Sanaz Toosi’s “English” addresses with intelligence and ferocity the quandary of assimilation: Is learning to speak English for the benefit of a “better life” worth the sacrifice of one’s cultural identity … indeed one’s self?
The Old Globe is staging “English” in its theater-in-the-round White space, which challenges the expectation of a traditional classroom setting, but as the actors are on their feet much of the time, it’s not an impediment. Directing this show, which proceeds largely in quick mini-scenes, is Arya Shahi, a founding member of New York’s Pigpen Theatre Co. His work is no stranger to the Globe: Shahi was part of the ensemble that staged “The Old Man and the Old Moon” and “The Tale of Despereaux” in the main theater in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
He’s got a skilled and sympathetic cast to work with. Iranian-American actor/writer/activist Pooya Mohseni presides as Marjan, who’s teaching the four students and absolutely insisting that “ENGLISH ONLY” be spoken in the room. Playwright Toosi’s world is one in which the actors speak with halting accents when practicing their English for Marjan and with each other; when speaking normally it is implied that they are conversing in their native language, Farsi. It’s probably the only way this could have been done, as few audience members are likely to be conversant in Farsi themselves.
The most strident and definitely blunt of the students is Elham (Tara Grammy), who is preparing to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam for the fifth time. Elham is frustrated by the slow progress of the other students, resentful of the flirtation between the one male pupil, Omid (Joe Joseph) and teacher Marjan, and increasingly bitter about being asked to lose herself in another language, if not another culture, at the expense of her own.
The oldest of the students, Roya (Mary Apick) is struggling the most with learning English and it may be because she truly doesn’t want to. After all, her son has moved his family to Canada, given himself a non-Iranian-sounding name, and done so too with her grandchild. A running dilemma early in the going is Roya’s futile attempts to get him on the phone.
Apick is a highly accomplished film and television star in Iran, and that experience resonates in a performance that is completely affecting in both its anger and heartbreak.
The aforementioned Omid is a mystery to his fellow students – his English is already beyond proficient, and there’s a smugness about him that tends to repel all but Marjan, who it is believed has an unfulfilling marriage and perhaps the same kind of life outside the classroom. Joseph is certainly capable in the role, though to me the flirtation side-story feels superfluous – at least until it precipitates some important revelations near the end of the story.
Ari Derambakhsh is utterly charming as the youngest student, Goli, though her part among all of them seems underwritten.
Most of the dramatic tension of “English” simmers in the encounters between Marjan and Elham, right down to the denouement of the play. To some extent they represent both sides of the all-but-institutionalized “you’ve got to speak English to get anywhere” mentality. For Marjan, aptitude in if not mastery of English is entry into another, more promising world. For Elham, learning the language, passing the test, must be done. Period. But she will cling to the world she grew up in, the world she knew. To do otherwise would be to betray herself.
There’s a plum at the very end of the play, which I won’t spoil. I will say this – it represents a moment of validation for Elham and for anyone else who cherishes what they know and care about the most, anyone who is ardently willing to learn but just as ardently unwilling to compromise.
“English” runs through Feb. 25 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.