BWW Review: Israeli Stage Bows Out With N.E. Premiere of THE RETURN
Written by Hanna Eady & Edward Mast, Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon; Scenic Designer, Cristina Todesco; Lighting Designer, Jeff Adelberg; Costume Designer, Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Designer, David Wilson; Stage Manager, Kimberly Waller
CAST: Philana Mia, Nael Nacer
Performances through May 19 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
Even as Artistic Director and Founder Guy Ben-Aharon rings down the curtain on Israeli Stage after nine seasons, his final offering draws back the curtain to give us a peek at the human collateral damage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Playwrights Hanna Eady and Edward Mast's collaboration on The Return, receiving its New England Premiere production at Deane Hall at the Boston Center for the Arts, holds a mirror up to the deep fracture caused by the long-running and controversial hostilities within the State of Israel and throughout the Middle East. It is fair to say that both the Jewish/Zionist and the Palestinian nationalist viewpoints are represented in the play, providing a degree of edification for the uninitiated, but people with strong opinions on either side of the divide are not likely to come away entirely satisfied.
The Return is a two-hander that runs just over an hour, but every minute is taut and every silence speaks as powerfully as words of dialogue. Set in an auto repair shop in Herzliya, Israel, the more or less present day drama is the story of two people from different backgrounds with different birthrights, each struggling to communicate what his or her reality is, to make the other understand. A Palestinian mechanic fixes army vehicles and does everything necessary to behave as he must, not to step out of line. After a long absence from the country, a Jewish Israeli woman from his past walks into the shop, and, believing she has wronged him, seeks redemption or forgiveness.
Their conversation eventually reveals the nature of their past connection and the consequences each has suffered, but it is a painstaking and painful discourse to arrive at the truth. In the process, the audience is made to understand what is at stake. The individual has no purchase against the authority of the state, but he has been made to accept his circumstances. The expatriate, returning after years of living in the United States, seems gobsmacked (and not in a good way) by the changes in her native country. Her righteous indignation and her desire to set things right are admirable, but unrealistic, and he knows it. In fact, he fears what harm she may inadvertently cause with her good intentions. It is simple for him, but oh, so complicated for her.
Whether or not one is familiar with the issues at hand, Philana Mia (Her) and Nael Nacer (Him) combine in a tours de force performance on Cristina Todesco's striking, white molded set. For most of the play, Ben-Aharon keeps a wide space between them to reflect the chasm between their peoples, but physical distance is no hindrance to the actors. With body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and their silences, Mia and Nacer craft a wireless connection that communicates volumes about each of their characters, individually and as half of the duo. Mia's is the more visibly emotional character, readily expressing her dismay and anguish, the proponent for taking action. Nacer's character practices restraint, containing his emotions until his fear takes over and he erupts. Most importantly, Mia and Nacer portray the humanity of two people, virtually powerless in an inhumane world.
There is much to unpack in The Return, and Ben-Aharon maintains his standard practice of inviting the audience to participate in a discussion at the conclusion of each performance. The play raises many questions that cannot be answered in a 25-minute talkback, but encouraging respectful dialogue is an important step in any divisive situation. This is part of the legacy of Israeli Stage, and the Boston theater community would do well to support more engagement as we await the next venture from Ben-Aharon and company. In the meantime, Shalom.
Photo credit: Anna Olivella (Philana Mia, Nael Nacer)