“I want you to hear your voice,” Marjan breathes, “and fall in love with what it becomes.” But is what you become worth what you give up along the way? This is a central question of Sanaz Toossi’s 2023 Pulitzer Prize–winning play English, now running at The Old Globe through February.
Presented in the round at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre under the direction of Arya Shahi, the award-winning script takes place in a language class in Karaj, Iran. Seated behind a sterile metal desk, instructor Marjan slips an “English-Only” sign from the drawer, quickly establishing the space as one intended to prepare, through six weeks of immersion, its adult students to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. While Marjan and each of her four students is there for his or her own reason, this class is about more than learning for learning’s sake—it is a means to an end with life-transforming opportunities.
This reality is jarring for Elham (Tara Grammy), who has recently been accepted to medical school in Australia but needs a passing score on the exam in order to attend. Elham is passionate to the point of rudeness, her fire and competitive nature igniting class discussions and learning games. Grammy’s delivery is exquisite—you can feel her frustration and intensity, but also Elham’s moments of quiet insecurity as she fights against compartmentalizing her intellectual capacity to fit a more finite linguistic reality. The characterization is human, deep, and flawless.
Roya (Mary Apick) likewise feels held hostage by her language acquisition. The oldest student in the class, Roya desperately wants to maintain a connection with her son, his wife, and their young child, but they’ve forbidden her from speaking with her new granddaughter in Farsi and asked her to learn English in order to relocate to the family’s home in Canada.
As long-distance communications unravel, hints of Roya’s disillusionment with the request peeks through. After all, this is a system that expects total colonization of her mother tongue. “Do you hear how much softer he is [in Farsi than he is in English]?” she asks, after playing voicemails from her son in both languages. “In English, he forgets, but in Farsi he remembers.”
Omid (Joe Joseph) belongs, to his own estimation, nowhere. Though his language skills surpass those of his classmates, Omid seeks belonging; for him, this class is about acceptance and finding like-minded people. Quietly intense, Joseph brings restraint to the role of Omid, allowing his storyline to gradually build.
Likewise, Pooya Mohseni offers a calm reservedness as Marjan, a woman bound by the echoes of the past. While the audience believes she wants the best for her students, it is less clear what her own hopes and dreams entail.
The motivations of vibrant Goli (Ari Derambakhsh), a hardworking young student dedicated to getting each phrase right, are never clearly articulated, but it is clear that she loves learning. Derambakhsh portrays Goli with convincing innocence and naivete, a contrast to the world-weariness that peeks through in Marjan and the other characters.
To create context for audiences about how difficult it is to learn a language, playwright Toossi takes advantage of a unique conceit: The characters speak English throughout—a quick, unaccented, colloquial English to indicate comfortability in Farsi, and a halting, strongly accented version to represent their non-native English.
This choice allows audiences to experience empathy towards the challenge of learning a new language and to, in a small way, see how humbling it can be to have your ability to communicate (and the way people perceive your intelligence and efficacy) kneecapped by the limits of the language that you have access to. The experience is disconcerting and uncomfortable and, in generating that discomfort, vitally important.
Quietly elegant yet unpretentious, English peels back the layers on understanding and communication and reveals how the way we speak intersects with how we are perceived, but not necessarily who we are. It is, without a doubt, worth a trip to The Old Globe.
English runs through Feb. 25.