English Review – An Eloquent Journey

(L-R) Pej Vahdat, Sahar Bibiyan, Roxanna Hope Radja, Nikki Massoud and Shadee Vossoughi
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I can still remember my days in advanced high school Spanish classes, the teachers gently scolding us to repeat any English phrases en Espaňol so we could practice the language we were trying to learn. In Sanaz Toossi’s English, a group of Iranian students faces a similar predicament as they study for an English language exam; their instructor insists they only speak English, never their native Farsi. The play offers an elegant blend of humor and poignancy, marvelously executed at the Goodman Theatre, in a co-production with Guthrie Theater.

(L-R) Pej Vahdat, Sahar Bibiyan and Roxanna Hopen Radja

The characters consist of four students and a teacher, each with their own reasons for being there and relationship to the English language. Young and eager Goli thinks English proficiency will increase her future opportunities. Roya wants to communicate with her granddaughter who lives in Canada and whose parents won’t teach her Farsi. Elham has dreams of attending medical school in Australia, and the MCAT scores to make it happen, but her hostility toward English makes it difficult for her to master it. Only Omid, who speaks better English than the rest of them, has mysterious motivations. Their teacher Marjan, who lived in Manchester for nine years, is bright and bubbly in her enthusiasm for the language. As they study and get to know one another, they find ways to express themselves, both in English and out of it, and examine their relationship with their identities through the lens of language.

(In front) Shadee Vossoughi and (in back) Roxanna Hope Radja

The small group of actors is magnificently cast, each ideally suited to their role. Shadee Vossoughi radiates energy as the sunny Goli. Sahar Bibiyan brings an earnestness and humanity to Roya, beautifully embodying her longing for greater closeness with her family. Pej Vahdat is honest and vulnerable as the reserved Omid. Roxanna Hope Radja brings nuance to the surprisingly complicated Marjan, and Nikki Massoud is exceptional as Elham, imbuing the character with both passion and humanity.

(L-R) Nikki Massoud, Shadee Vossoughi, Pej Vahdat and Roxanna Hope Radja

Toossi’s script is perfectly crafted. In a play about language, the text is of utmost importance, and the material here is eloquent and balanced. There are plenty of jokes as the characters fumble with unfamiliar English vocabulary, but the audience always feels they are laughing with the characters rather than at them. More serious storylines are perfectly woven into the lighthearted environment, their weight appropriately conveyed without overwhelming the story. The characters all feel real, each with hopes, dreams, and flaws. It’s no wonder this script won a Pulitzer; it has a lot to say about communication, identity, and power, and it does so with beauty and finesse.

(L-R) Shadee Vossoughi, Pej Vahdat, Nikki Massoud and Roxanna Hope Radja

Mastering English is no minor undertaking, and neither is producing this play; it requires a steady hand and nuanced understanding of a variety of social issues. The Goodman Theatre has done an excellent job bringing this remarkable script to vibrant life. I cannot recommend this production enough.

(L-R) Pej Vahdat and Roxanna Hope Radja

Ticket Information

Location: The Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street

Dates: May 10 – June 16, 2024

Tickets: $15 – $55. Available at the Goodman Theatre’s website or by phone at 312.443.3800.

Photos by Liz Lauren.


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