April 16, 2009
By Myrna Petlicki
No matter what your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will be moved by the plight of the Israeli settlers in Motti Lerner's Pangs of the Messiah. The play, set in 2012, revolves around the impending signing by the Israeli government of a peace treaty with the Palestinians that would require relinquishing West Bank territory. For Rabbi Shmuel (Bernard Beck), his wife Amalia (Susan V. Adler) and their family and friends, that would mean leaving their homes forever.
A new angle
"It's an issue that's been on my mind for a long time," said Deerfield resident Beck. "There's almost nothing that we have exposure to ordinarily that deals with this side of it."
"It's probably one of the toughest shows I've ever done," Highland Park actor Adler. "It's very timely and relevant and painful -- all of the things that you want a drama to be."
Beck said there's "kind of an ambiguity" to the rabbi. "He's sort of cut from the mold of a movement leader after Martin Luther King -- nonviolent, mobilizing large numbers of ordinary people. He's tough and strong and dynamic, but he is very much a man of peace. The play is about the resort to violence in that movement and his relation to it."
"Pangs of the Messiah" leaves open the question of whether the rabbi is really opposed to violence "or has he in some way blinked at it or connived in it," Beck said.
For the rabbi, Beck said, the peace treaty isn't just a matter of having to abandon his home. For many religious settlers, that territory "is Biblically promised. For those people, leaving that land is violating God's instruction."
The character of Amalia is the family matriarch and local school's principal. "The plight of the community is very much on her plate," Adler said.
Playing this role offers a challenge to Adler who admitted, "I'm not pro settlement movement in Israel. I see it as something that could be detrimental to the peace process."
As an actor, Adler had to start "with a clean slate," something the playwright made possible for her.
"Motti Lerner's writing is what makes it happen that I can empathize with Amalia," she said. "I can see the arc that she travels and the devastation she goes through as a mother, as a community leader, as a wife."
"Pangs of the Messiah" encourages actors and audiences to ponder several issues, starting with violence "and the role it has between Jews and Jews, and between Jews and Arabs," Beck said.
"I think that most of the American-Jewish community doesn't have a handle on all of this stuff. Motti Lerner's writing speaks about the fact that fundamentalism is alive and well among Jews, too. We tend to think of it being in the 'other community.' You can't just rubberstamp Israel because it's Israel. You have to be informed. You have to be critical where criticism is necessary.
"Having said that," Adler concluded, "if you see the show, you will see that this family is not indicative of all settlement families. It's just one family -- and you empathize with them."