‘English’: Learning a language, but at what price?

The company of English. From left: Deniz Khateri, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Lily Gilan James, Zaven Ovian, and Leyla Modirzadeh. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

BOSTON – We speak. But are we heard?

And if we speak in a language not our own, a language we are struggling to master, the difficulty of the simple act of speaking and being understood is ratcheted up several levels.

And when the stakes are raised – when learning a new language holds the key to a job, an education, or even the chance to bond with a grandchild – how traumatic will it be when we struggle?

The SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting through Nov. 19 Sanaz Toossi’s award-winning play “English,” which raises a series of provocative questions about what language means to one’s identity and self-worth.

It is original, well-constructed, often funny, and in the end purposely caring and compassionate towards the students struggling with accents and idioms, as well as a language teacher also struggling to find her place after coming home.

The play is set in Karaj, Iran, in 2008, a politically fraught time in a highly politicized country. The country’s economy was broken due to foreign policy and international sanctions, the “Morality Police” were working again, and a huge number of Iranians were experiencing social and financial hardships. The desire for change was everywhere.

Deniz Khateri as Marjan in SpeakEasy’s production of English. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

“English” centers on Marjan (Deniz Kateri), an English teacher preparing her four students to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

The results of the exam will be life-changing for each classmate, but one of the students in particular seems set on challenging and possibly derailing what she is being taught.

Both Toossi and Director Melory Mirashrafi are Iranian-Americans, bringing their own important personal perspectives to the narrative and the characters.

The play is performed in English, with the actors’ lines in Farsi being expressed as normal English conversations by the actors – all except for a few key passages at the end, which are spoken in Farsi.

It changes when they become Iranians learning to speak English; their language is awkward, halting, heavily accented – all except for one of the students.

The classmates are the young, good-natured 18-year-old Goli (Lily Gilan James), looking to master a language she sees as poetic.  

Roya (Leyla Modirzadeh) is an older woman who hopes learning English will help her to connect with her granddaughter and son in Canada, who have assimilated to the point that her son’s wife has requested Roya speak just English to their child. In return, Roya leaves her son hilarious phone messages

The stakes for Elham (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) are even higher; she has flunked TOEFL five times and her conditional acceptance at an Australian medical school is in jeopardy.

Omid (Zaven Ovian) speaks fluent English with very little trace of an accent – much like Marjan, who spent nine years in England before returning to Iran. When games are played, his extensive English vocabulary is evident, creating questions among the other students.

Elham is not one to stay quiet and pushes back against Marjan’s teaching methods, which include banning the use of Farsi during class, and what she sees as favoritism by the teacher.  She also feels Marjan likes speaking English perhaps a little too much, and especially when it comes to Omid, who can handle complicated English concepts easily and fluently.

Over the six weeks of the course, Toossi skillfully inserts twist and turns, and there will be revelations, and changes, with students coming and going.

“English” is a tale told with heart and humor, with those involved questioning until the very end whether the goal is worth the sweat, the sacrifices and the possibility of losing one’s identity in the process.

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “English.” Written by Sanaz Toossi. Directed by Melory Mirashrafi.  Scenic design by Janie E. Howland. Costume design by Nina Vartanian. Lighting design by Amanda E. Fallon.  Sound design by Ash. In the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 19. SpeakEasyStage.com.