Language consists of so much more than words. Beyond matters of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, its meaning can reach deep into questions of cultural and individual identity. There’s a reason our native language is called the mother tongue.
Over the course of Sanaz Toossi’s perceptive and absorbing “English,” those bedrock truths become clear, to varying degrees, to an Iranian teacher and the four students she is trying to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
“English” is directed at SpeakEasy Stage Company with a sure hand by Melory Mirashrafi, who, like Toossi, is Iranian-American. Mirashrafi draws fine-tuned performances from the cast that land with the impact of emotional truth while not upending the play’s subtle, small-scale craftsmanship.
For the students in the Iranian city of Karaj in 2008, a lot is riding on their success in the test, known as TOEFL. Ditto for the teacher, Marjan (an excellent Deniz Khateri). Part of playwright Toossi’s accomplishment is how deftly she reveals the changing definitions of success as teacher and students alike weigh the cost of leaving their homeland versus staying; what is lost versus what is gained.
The class itself is a kind of test. There are clashes of personalities, ripples of revelation, battles over authenticity, and flashes of wry humor (including jokes about Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts), along with glimpses of such totems of Western popular culture as “The Wizard of Oz.”
Toossi has devised a structure for her play, which unfolds in a series of brief scenes over an intermissionless 100 minutes, that brings clarity to what might otherwise be confusing. When Marjan and her students are conversing in Farsi, they speak in unaccented English, with the velocity of fluency. When they are speaking in English, their speech is accented, and in some cases, halting and uncertain.
On the surface, Marjan is an upbeat and supportive figure, but her firm and officious streak manifests before long. She will brook no doubts about the class’s mission; to underscore that point, she has written “English Only!” on the blackboard. (The spare classroom set is by Janie E. Howland.)
“Your future is in English,” she tells one student. “You do not belong here. I like that about you.” Marjan discloses to the students that she lived in England for nine years before returning to Iran, and for those nine years she uncomplainingly accepted being called Mary by the British.
Lily Gilan James, a senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, does a nice job conveying the vulnerability of 18-year-old Goli, though Goli is the least developed and most reticent character in the play. That adjective emphatically does not apply to 28-year-old Elham (Josephine Moshiri Elwood), a rebellious firebrand who has a humiliating history with TOEFL and is learning English to pursue her goal of studying gastroenterology in Australia.
It is Elham who issues the sharpest challenges to Marjan’s authority and assumptions. When the teacher exults that “We have a future doctor among us! And an Australian!,” Elham’s reply to the second assertion is a firm “No.”
Elwood brings a restless energy to her portrayal of Elham, making her character the combustible spark of the play. The performances of this fine actress invariably pulse with life, and it’s a pleasure to see her again at SpeakEasy, where she has done memorable work in productions of “The Whale,” “Hand to God,” and last season’s “People, Places and Things.”
As part of the learning process, the class engages in group exercises. In one, they toss a bouncy ball to one another while engaged in a rapid-fire competition to come up with English words for, say, things that are green. When 29-year-old Omid (Zaven Ovian) comes up with “windbreaker,” Elham’s suspicions are aroused, and she confronts him.
Indeed, Omid’s English is so good you wonder why he is in the class — a very pertinent question, as it turns out. Ovian deftly maintains an air of enigma and mystery beneath Omid’s extroverted demeanor; the actor makes him a human question mark.
The oldest student in the class is the elegant Roya (Leyla Modirzadeh). Roya wants to learn English so she can communicate better with her grandchild in Canada when she moves there to live with her son and his family. Modirzadeh beautifully captures Roya’s pain when she realizes that that “when” might actually be an “if” — and also the resurgence of Roya’s confidence and pride in her Iranian identity.
Along with Elham, it is Roya who embodies the challenge underlying “English”: How to find the words without losing yourself.
Play by Sanaz Toossi. Directed by Melory Mirashrafi. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Nov. 19. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com