April 2, 2009
By Kerry Reid
The most controversial plays about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories tend to come to the United States from England. Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, a ten-minute anti-Zionist history of Israel, by English playwright Caryl Churchill, sparked public protest when it was given a staged reading last week by Theatre J, a culturally Jewish theater company in D.C. And My Name Is Rachel Corrie, adapted by Brits Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman from the journals of the young American killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she defended a Palestinian home in Gaza, was the subject of charges of censorship when the New York Theatre Workshop abruptly canceled its planned 2006 production.
But Israel has its own internal voices of protest against its policies in Gaza and the West Bank. One of them belongs to Motti Lerner, whose work on the subject has rarely been presented on the American stage. For that reason alone, Silk Road Theatre Project’s heartfelt, if occasionally slack, production of Lerner’s 1987 Pangs of the Messiah is worth a look. Originally presented in Hebrew in Tel Aviv, then rewritten and translated into English for its American premiere at Theatre J 20 years later, the play is getting only its third staging, under Jennifer Green’s direction.
Set in 2012, in an area of the West Bank that the ultra-Zionist family of Rabbi Shmuel Berger still calls by its biblical name of Samaria, Pangs covers three anguished days during which the family wrestles with the looming possibility of a peace accord that will create a Palestinian state and force them out of their settlement. Shmuel (Bernard Beck) sees peaceful protests as the most effective course of action, even—or especially—if they involve women and children. (“Children are our best weapon,” his wife, Amalia, declares.) His son Avner and son-in-law, Benny, are ready for war—though Benny, who’s married to pregnant Chava and has already served time in prison for laying roadside bombs, is reluctant to return to the fold of militancy. Avner’s wife, Tirtzah, who’s been struggling to get pregnant, is horrified by the increasingly violent rhetoric of her husband and his family. And Shmuel’s youngest son, simple Nadav, just wants to finish the house he’s building. As the debate escalates beyond Shmuel’s powers to control it, a Lear-like aura of chaos and impending doom descends.
No Palestinian characters appear onstage, emphasizing the deeply ingrained insularity of the settlement (a stretch of wood-and-wire fence visible behind the home in Kurt Sharp’s cavelike set adds to the walled-enclave feeling). The tension is intensified by video interludes of news broadcasts showing increasing violence on both sides and reports of clashes delivered by the characters. But the real battle, Lerner’s script suggests, is for the soul of the family—and of Israel.
Green’s staging takes a while to make that clear. Susan V. Adler’s fluttery Amalia seems at sea as the play begins, and it’s not until Mark Hines’s smoldering Avner and Dana Black’s smart and soulful Tirtzah show up that the fissures in the family’s foundation really begin to appear. And they crack wide open when Brent T. Barnes’s Benny finally lays his cards on the table.
Lerner overplays the fruitfulness-barrenness dichotomy, contrasting Chava’s fecundity with Tirtzah’s fertility problems and playing up Benny’s choice between orchards and armaments. But the occasional uncertainty of the performances and didacticism of the dialogue can’t derail what’s essentially an aching threnody for those tossed in the waves of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Lerner avoids the temptation to demonize, leaving us with a sorrowful meditation on how it will all end. “Questions are over,” Shmuel says early on. “Maybe there’ll be some answers.” Maybe. But Lerner’s play cautions that the answers we get may not be the ones we want.