Strife and Human Revelation on the West Bank / by R. Sheth

March 29, 2009
By Chris Jones
Theater critic

It is 2012. With the encouragement of the United States government, an Israeli prime minister is about to sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians that creates an autonomous Palestinian state, partitions Jerusalem and creates new Israeli borders along the pre-1967 lines. So where does that leave the Jewish settlers of the West Bank? How do they feel? What will they do?

Those are the main topics of the play "Pangs of the Messiah" by Motti Lerner, one of Israel's leading playwrights. First penned in the 1980s for a theater in Tel Aviv, the script was revised for its U.S. premiere in 2007 in Washington D.C. Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project now has the first Midwest production of an exceedingly interesting play.

Since the future scenario it imagines isn't so far removed from the stated policy of the Obama administration, this exquisitely balanced play packs quite a formidable, and current, political punch. It will be of great interest to anyone with an interest in the geopolitics of the Middle East and the human consequences of impending political change.

And if you are wondering where this play stands on the issues of Jewish settlers on the West Bank, the answer is it's hard to know. Lerner has written a script with Chekhovian nuance.

One can see the script as an elegiac lament for a community of faith betrayed by its own people at home and abroad; as an indictment of a people overly resistant to the inevitability of reasonable change; or as a play that doesn't takes political sides so much as observe the way we react under pressure.

It is true that no Palestinian characters appear. They are not the people about whom Lerner is writing —except indirectly. Lerner is clear-eyed about the potential impact of the actions of his cornered characters on those who share their land. But he also reveals the Jewish settlers—a group that most of us know only from CNN snippets. And when it comes to plays about politics, the revelation of humanity (in all its flawed glory) is what theater does best.

Jennifer Green's initially prosaic production is not always the equal of this must-see script. Some of the actors lack definition and pace, especially in the weak first few minutes. Throughout, you find yourself wanting to get up on stage and ratchet the action up several notches. This is not the kind of play that needs mumbling or indulgent pauses.

But it does get significantly better as it goes, once the likes of Larry Baldacci, Brent T. Barnes and Mark Hines (all strong actors representing settlers with different plans of action) get their formidable teeth into the conflicts of the play, along with the colorful Bernard Beck. Green includes documentary-style video footage that enhances the sense of how faith, politics, personality and community are so inextricably linked in the Middle East.

And, frankly, the script it so compelling, you won't find yourself focusing on anything but the issues of the play, crucial concerns of the moment.