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Studio Theatre’s ‘English’ is especially potent amid Iran protests

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In Marjan’s classroom in a city not far from Tehran, language is the subject, but it’s the teacher who needs the psychic interpreter. She’s the English instructor of Sanaz Toossi’s “English,” an elegantly crafted play about the desire to open oneself up to new worlds through new words. And Marjan, who returned to Iran after nearly a decade in the United Kingdom, no longer knows to what world she belongs.

Nazanin Nour plays Marjan with a serene grace and more than a little sadness in Knud Adams’s splendidly realized production at Studio Theatre. She strives for a formal distance from the four students in her adult education class, who include both a Western-culture-loving teenager, Goli (Narges Kalogli), and a grandmother, Roya (Nina Ameri), desperate to move to Canada, where her son lives.

Inevitably, though, intimations of Marjan’s emotional turmoil surface, mostly as a result of the growing closeness she feels toward Omid (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), the lone man in the class, and her resentment of Elham (Tara Grammy), an aspiring medical student who challenges her authority. Nour and Toossi drop only gentle hints of Marjan’s ineffable longing, a need that finds expression in an overly romantic embrace of English.

The setup is in some ways familiar, but the playwright’s insights remain remarkably fresh. The horrifying news these days out of Iran, much of it about a brutal government’s efforts to control and punish women, gives “English” added urgency, even if Marjan’s classroom is made to seem an oasis from religion and politics. Our 100 minutes in set designer Afsoon Pajoufar’s evocation of a sterile seminar room permit us to shift our gaze away from some of the troubling issues of the day and toward more universal matters of the heart. Only the state-mandated headscarves for the women denote a culture with a set of rules foreign to Americans.

Toossi’s exquisite ear for linguistic trial and error provides a funny, humanizing framework for the larger questions about aspiration and identity that “English” explores; Marjan advocates a holistic scholastic approach, in which the students must shed their inhibitions and surrender to this exotic new language, which is really a projection of her own ambivalence about her national identity. “I always like myself better in English,” Marjan says at one point, an admission that hangs mysteriously in the academic air: What is Marjan not telling the class about those years in northern England? Whether her return to Iran was prompted by some primal need or some traumatic event is left tantalizingly unexplained.

Adams’s superlative cast nimbly navigates the performance guidelines that Toossi requires: They converse in fluent American English when they speak in their native tongue, Farsi, and shift to accents of varying levels of clarity when demonstrating their skills with English. (The fastest learner is the youngest student; the oldest has the greatest struggle.) Grammy’s rewardingly bristly Elham is the class rebel, defying Marjan’s entreaties to leave Farsi outside the room; her blunt outbursts belie her insecurities. In Ebrahimzadeh’s sensitively assembled portrayal, Omid’s colloquial mastery raises suspicions that he’s unwilling to quell — and, of course, intensifies his attractiveness to Marjan.

“English” opens a window, too, on the Western influences that seep into a closed society: Kalogli’s callow Goli chooses for show-and-tell a recording of a song by Shakira, and Omid and Marjan spend extracurricular hours watching “Notting Hill” and “A Room With a View” on the classroom VCR. Costume designer Dina El-Aziz offers a glimpse of Iranian wealth in the soignée outfit for Roya, who looks as if she shops at Bergdorf Goodman (and is played to genteel perfection by Ameri).

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But the values enshrined in “English” go beyond pop cultural superficialities. They extend to the more profound notions that Marjan seems to have brought back with her to Iran. In the play’s final scene, stylish Marjan makes a powerful choice minus one significant garment that aligns her with those of the nation aching for more personal freedom.

Adams, who last season staged Mosaic Theater Company’s engrossing tech-world dramedy “Private” — and a compelling version of “English” for off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company — shows a deep affinity for Toossi’s work in this second go with the play. Their collaboration is itself a textbook case of playwright and director communicating in a dynamic common language, one that, for lovers of potent theater, needs no translation.

English, by Sanaz Toossi. Directed by Knud Adams. Set, Afsoon Pajoufar; costumes, Dina El-Aziz; lighting, Minjoo Kim; sound, Kenny Neal. About 100 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org.

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