BWW Review: DAYS OF ATONEMENT: The Strength of Sisterhood
Days of Atonement
Written by Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari, Translated by Shir Freibach, Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon; Scenic Designer, Cristina Todesco; Costume Designer, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Designer, Scott Pinkney; Sound Designers, Tony Meola & Zach Williamson; Production Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub
Performances through June 25 by Israeli Stage at Deane Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.IsraeliStage.com
Israeli Stage presents the North American premiere production of Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari's Days of Atonement, a dramatic exploration of the Moroccan-Israeli immigrant experience through the eyes of four estranged sisters who reunite when their mother goes missing on the eve of Yom Kippur. Azoulay-Hasfari, who was Israeli Stage playwright-in-residence in 2016, suggests that each of the siblings represents an aspect of her own life, and also evokes some of the distinct factions of Israeli society. Producing Artistic Director Guy Ben-Aharon directs the stripped-down staging featuring a quartet of strong, complex performances from Jackie Davis, Adrianne Krstansky, Ramona Lisa Alexander, and Dana Stern.
While Days of Atonement has the distinct flavor of Jewish family relations, it also has a universal resonance for anyone who grew up with siblings or, for that matter, has seen even a smattering of movies and television shows which focus on the family for dramatic or comedic effect. Each of the Ohana sisters in the play struggles not to be constrained by the labels they earned over the course of their lives, even as they continue to hold the other three in the same narrow view. Molded by birth order and shaped by the specifics of their relationships with their parents, the daughters went out into the world under a variety of circumstances to find their own identities, for better or worse. Reuniting in the face of this fraught state of affairs (mother's unknown whereabouts) heightens emotions and galvanizes them to fight for their standing.
Azoulay-Hasfari crafts characters with depth, nooks, and crannies, and everyone in the ensemble gives a nuanced, fully realized rendering that stakes out the sisters' territory in the family's landscape. We are led into the story by the youngest sister, Amira (Dana Stern), who aims her video camera at members of the audience before turning it on herself and later capturing her sisters for an unfinished school project. Alternately adolescent and pouty, childish and fearful, or caring and responsible, Amira is authentically brought to life by Stern's ability to quickly shift tone and the genuine warmth she shares with her scene partners when the sisters are getting along. Amira is the only one still at home (father left before she was born) and issues the summons that brings her sisters back to the Moroccan immigrant enclave of Netivot where they all grew up.
Malka (Jackie Davis), the eldest sister, is unhappily married and obsesses over her husband's presumed infidelity. Next in age, Evelyn (Adrianne Krstansky) was sent away to boarding school and became an ultra-Orthodox Jew. She already has eight daughters and is pregnant again, a condition which both appalls her sisters and threatens her health. The second youngest is Fanny (Ramona Lisa Alexander), a successful self-made businesswoman and feminist who was put out of the house at 16 because of her wild nature and sexual escapades. Clearly, each woman totes substantial baggage, as well as her solipsistic idea of growing up in the Ohana family.
Other factors that came into play during their childhood were the fact that their parents had troubles and that their mother was a Moroccan immigrant. The daughters each reacted in their own way to their environment and took different paths as adults. Being together is a challenge and they snipe at each other, forming coalitions of two or three, depending on the circumstances. However, they are at least unified in their concern about their mother, and underlying the whole enterprise is the impending holy day, the Day of Atonement. They must pause and reflect, so that by the time the Shofar sounds to mark the end of Yom Kippur, there can be resolution.
Ben-Aharon's minimalist staging allows the focus to be on the women and each of their individual stories. The simplicity is designed by Cristina Todesco (scenic), Charles Schoonmaker (costume), Scott Pinkney (lighting), and Tony Meola and Zach Williamson (sound). Everyone dresses in black, but extreme differences in dress aptly convey the personality of the characters. The director keeps the actors moving back and forth, around and among a series of benches, to eliminate the potential for stasis in a play where there is so much talking, but little action. However, the acting is riveting, drawing the attention to every word. Alexander delivers an especially captivating speech when Fanny tells her sisters exactly what happened that caused her eviction from the home, and then about her life on the street. Davis, Krstansky, and Stern each have an absorbing moment to share their journeys, as well.
Azoulay-Hasfari has written a play that reflects on her own experiences and those of Moroccan-Jewish immigrants in Israel, but is universal in nature. Ben-Aharon has chosen a diverse cast that represents the American melting pot, too. Most importantly, these four actors are able to tell their characters' stories, informed by their life experiences, and engage the audience in a way that encourages you to think about the relationships in your own family.