Plays and Principles / by R. Sheth

March 13, 2009
By Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner wrote Pangs of the Messiah more than 20 years ago, but he says the play is more relevant now than ever.

An updated version of the work, which centers on a family of West Bank settlers, comes to Chicago to open the season at the Silk Road Theatre Project, where it runs from March 19 to May 10 at the company home at 77 W. Washington St., Chicago. Piven Theatre Artistic Director Jennifer Green directs. (The company is not to be confused with Yo Yo Ma's multicultural Silk Road Project; this troupe performs works by playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.)

Lerner, a well-known Israeli playwright, peace activist and writer for Israeli TV and movies, was in town recently to watch rehearsals; he'll return for the opening. "Pangs of the Messiah," he said in a phone conversation, was originally written in 1986 and concerns a family of eight religious West Bank settlers facing evacuation from their homes as a result of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The new version updates the play to 2012, with a similar peace treaty again meaning the family's inevitable evacuation. Every member of the family is torn between obeying their deepest beliefs and obeying their government's mandate.

"They consider a spectrum of options," Lerner explains. "The father is a moderate settler who tries to do everything within the law and by peaceful means. Some members of the family are more militant and take action outside of the law to sabotage the peace agreement. In the end, they bring catastrophe upon themselves and on the state."

The new version has been performed just once before in English, at Theatre J in Washington, D.C., where it was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Best Play. That production, Lerner says, "caused a discourse and introduced different ideas about the possibilities - what will happen in Israel if there is a peace agreement?"

The debate was exactly what Lerner wanted, especially in the American Jewish community. "American Jewry cannot hide its head under the sand. They have to know, they have to be prepared, because these things are going to happen, and they have to have an opinion about it. It's very important that American Jewry be heard in Israel," he says.

That's partly because "we mostly hear the most vocal, most conservative right-wing population. We don't hear the liberals," he says. "I hope the play will be received as a call for American Jews to raise their voices and support peace in Israel."

When "Pangs" was first produced, it was "a prophetic play," its author says. "Now it's about reality. I hope the new production will create a more serious debate and discourse about fundamentalism. I hope Israeli society will hear the voices coming out of the play and be more courageous" in supporting a peace agreement.

He acknowledges that the play's message might be heard very differently today than when it was first produced. "I can understand why the fundamentalist voices might have hardened after the war in Gaza, but I hope (those opinions) disappear very soon. Some politicians are using are using the war in Gaza for political purposes."

If he speaks more like an activist than a playwright, Lerner thinks the two are inseparable, at least in his case. He asks, "What can an artist do?" His answer: "The public discourse of political issues when conducted by politicians contains slogans and is usually very superficial. I think the artist who introduces more values into the political discourse should make the discourse deeper not by using slogans but by talking about human beings, the fate of human beings, how they will be affected if there isn't any peace process."

Lerner himself has been wearing several hats since he became active in the Israeli peace movement in 1973. He teaches what he calls "political playwriting" at Tel Aviv University and lectures at many venues in the United States and Europe, incorporating his views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into his talks on playwriting and the Israeli theater. Among the other subjects his plays have dealt with are the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ("The Murder of Isaac"); the wife of David Ben-Gurion ("Paula"); the Jonathan Pollard scandal ("Pollard"); and an imagined American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities ("Benedictus").

He continues to place great expectations for political change on the artist. "Artists, especially writers, playwrights, filmmakers, can tell stories that tell us about human beings, how they are affected by war," he says. "Then people will reconsider their thoughts about peace."