BWW Reviews: Theater J's THE ADMISSION is Captivating

BWW Reviews: Theater J's THE ADMISSION is Captivating

What does it take to conquer fear?

It's a question asked in Theater J's captivating workshop production of The Admission by Motti Lerner. The Admission exposes how fear can thrust even our staunchest relationships into question using the prism of Tantura, a long debated and controversial event in Israeli history. Theater J has established a reputation for presenting works with solid acting, and thought-provoking questions that force audiences to challenge their beliefs. The Admission is no exception.

Set in Israel during the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the mid-eighties, The Admission centers around two families. Azmi (Pomme Koch) and his father Ibrahim (Hanna Eady) are the Arab proprietors of a restaurant in Israel which has been supported by an Israeli family for a decade. When Avigdor (Michael Tolaydo), the Israeli family patriarch, visits the restaurant with his son Giora (Danny Gavigan) and announces that he plans on building a new settlement, Ibrahim suddenly stabs him. What caused Ibrahim to turn on Avigdor with such furry and passion? That becomes a point of contention between the two families, and leads them to discover a complicated past

The Admission is heavy on Israeli history and Lerner does a good job of keeping the audience informed without overburdening them. Ibrahim's violent action was sparked by memories of an event which occurred during Israel's 1948 War for Independence, Tantura. While the Israeli army was trying to capture the town, Arab's claim the Israelis massacred innocent civilians. The Israelis claim they were acting in self-defense. What really happened is still a subject for debate amongst survivors of Tantura, scholars and historians. In The Admission, Avigdor and Ibrahim both have connections to Tantura. To not spoil the play, I'll leave it at that.

Lerner's script is well-constructed in its ability to setup the dynamic of each family and establish the geo-political atmosphere of Israeli life during the intifada. What's most astounding is not only Lerner's character development, but how fear dictates their actions and manifests itself differently in each of them. Lerner portrays fear as, of the truth, judgment of others, ability to forgive, failure to atone for one's actions and even the freedom to move beyond the past and live.

Tolaydo's portrayal of Avigdor was one of the great surprises of the show. Even when he's off the stage, we can still feel his presence. At first, he's the lovable patriarch of the family and then with a simple stiffening of his postures, we see him as the Israeli army commander. But like father, like son, as we also witness with Gavigan's Giora. Both men keep us guessing about what type of fear is motivating them.

Through a rich performance as Giora, Gavigan ably portrays his character's mental and emotional anguish over recognizing his father's role at Tantura. Much of this is conveyed through his use of crutches. Even though Giora's injuries occurred during his stint in the Israeli military, the crutches are not just supporting him physically but mentally. It's as if the crutches show how conflicted he is about his father's actions.

With Ibrahim, being an Arab living in Israel, the fear that motivates him throughout the play is quite clear. By stabbing Avigdor, his actions could lead to imprisonment. Eady is heartbreaking as a man struggling to address the past and mourn what once was, all while being careful to not do anything to cause his family to come under the suspicion of authorities. It's not so much what Eady says, but the torment with which he clutches his fists and places them against his head that convey his agony. Ibrahim isn't the play's largest part, but Eady's every moment onstage only further wants us to settle what happened at Tantura so we can bring his character peace.

The rest of this talented ensemble is equally fantastic, supporting the actions of all three men. As Samya, Ibrahim's daughter, Leila Buck gives an endearing performance struggling to bring her father closure. Koch has the difficult job of presenting to the audience the painful life of trying to be Arab in Israel - knowing full well the suspicion that it brings during the intifada. The honesty in his performance provides him with the credibility to put forth some ugly truths about life as an Arab in Act II and to have the audience accept them.

Kimberly Schraf is compelling as Avigdor's wife, Yona, trying to balance her husband's wishes and son's need for clarity. The fear of losing Giora over what happened at Tantura motivates her. Elizabeth Anne Jernigan rounds out the company with a fine performance as Neta, Giora's finance.

Since this is a workshop production the sets and costumes are minimal. Interestingly enough, that only seems to help the production by keeping the audience focused on Lerner's text. The stage consists of three tables with one centered in the middle for most of the play. One can't help but notice the symbolism the center table brings as it is the one setting which brings members from both families together.

Finally, it's worth noting that while Tantura has been a source of controversy, so has this production. Originally, The Admission was to have been fully staged by Theater J. However, due to protests and the funding issues which resulted from them, this production was scaled back to a workshop format. Still, Theater J is to be applauded for persevering in the face of controversy. Theater and art have always been controversial and pushed the limits. To shy away from what unsettles us defeats the purpose of the arts in their role as society's conscience.

The Admission once again showcases Theater J's phenomenal ability to present provocative works. It is not to be missed.

The Admission plays through April 6th at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 1-800-494-8497 or purchase them online.

Graphic: (L-R) Pomme Koch, Hanna Eady, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan in The Admission at Theater J. Credit: C. Stanley Photography

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Benjamin Tomchik Ben is an avid theatergoer who has seen over 115 musicals and plays. Some of his most memorable theatrical experiences include: accidentally insulting Andrew Lloyd Webber at a performance of Love Never Dies, attending the last Broadway performance of Elaine Stritch at Liberty and watching George Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers from the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Ben works in public affairs for a Washington, D.C.-based trade association and previously served in The White House. Ben has a Bachelor of Arts degree from George Mason University and a Master’s degree in strategic public relations from The George Washington University.

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