Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can hurt far more. The sparring characters in Savyon Liebrecht’s play — a heartfelt look at the rifts in orthodox Jewish life in 1980s Jerusalem — sense this instinctively, eschewing the bluntness of physical blows for the far more searing, and intimate, power of language.
Though words turn tender at times in this tough family drama’s softer moments, they jump more often to protest, insult, and condemnation. Words draw up ideological boundary lines and thicken the walls against nuance and compromise. They drive family apart when they might bring family together.
Liebrecht’s play, ably directed by Joanna Gruenhut, follows teenage girl Rivka (a cool and capable Blair Bowers) as she accepts an invitation from the charming, shambling Dooby (Brandon McCoy) to visit a dance hall in downtown Jerusalem. She accepts, dances, falls for Dooby, and in so doing steps into a cultural no-man’s-land between Israel’s secular world and the strictly religious Sephardic household of her parents.
For Israel, a state long preoccupied with more than its fair share of sticks and stones, Apples From The Desert is a look at daily life beneath and beyond the headlines, an unexpected way in through the bedroom window. It’s a diligently woven domestic tale streaked with melodrama and a few nifty bits of theatre magic. Though the end product is not especially revelatory — the play’s neat resolution, in particular, will feel reductive to some — it’s an earnest and engaging feature in Theater J’s two-part Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival this season, followed closely by a production of Boged: An Enemy of the People in January.
Although we begin with Rivka, Liebrecht pours the heart of the play into Rivka’s mother Victoria (Jennifer Mendenhall), who remembers with ease a time when she might have chosen a different road than the one on which she currently finds herself, living in meek obedience to Rivka’s brash and uncompromising father Reuven (Michael Tolaydo). As a women of shuttered options, Mendenhall is tremendously sympathetic, achieving the difficult task of realizing Victoria’s raw fear and vulnerability without dulling the clear signs of her intelligence and innate strength. Even then she doesn’t push back, instead dabbing at her raw eyes with a wet cloth, as if she has forgotten how to tend to the release of her own tears.
The presence of Tolaydo makes for a powerhouse pairing. Although Victoria and Reuven’s relationship lacks outward complexity — he roars, she retracts — Mendenhall and Tolaydo are so nicely tuned to each others’ rhythms that every moment of their terrible union smacks hard and believable.
Add a headstrong, hunchback auntie (Sarah Marshall) to the mix and the lengthy dining room dialogues at Rivka’s house take on an impish undercurrent. Some of the women’s hushed conversations are sad, some cheeky (“You live like a bird in a cage and I move from house to house like a cat,” Marshall observes wryly, “Neither of us live likes a human being”) and the show settles into an amusing, engaging groove. Marshall, forever the pop-eyed oddball charmer, teases laughter out of sequences that must surely ring somber on the written page.
Apples from the Desert
Closes January 6, 2013
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
These dining room scenes play out on a modest square of beige linoleum tile; along the outside perimeter of the set runs a stone path, heading off in the direction (we presume) of everything Reuven’s stronghold of virtue doesn’t provide: music and dancing, freedom and fun, and the promise of enough room to grow up one’s own woman. When Rivka finally sets out on this road with Dooby — toward a rural kibbutz life far from Jerusalem, doing charitable work and living communally — the play unfolds into a larger, potent world of opposites. Rivka has fled all she knew, and arrived into the first thing worth knowing.
And so a cultural chasm opens up, rather bitterly, between father/mother and daughter. The eventual reunion of clashing forces will lead the whole family to sit down together, but it’s the earlier sorrows of distance that stick in our hearts.
Not everyone will be carried away by Liebrecht’s fairly predictable script, as smartly penned as it is. Theater J’s production is more immediately exciting for its strong characterizations, and for the level at which this great cast adroitly leaps between markedly different emotions called for by the script. The people themselves have something of the delicate fruit to them — more easily bruised than they let on, but more inherently sweet as well.
Apples From The Desert . by Savyon Liebrect . Directed by Joanna Gruenhut . Featuring Jennifer Mendenhall, Blair Bowers, Sarah Marshall, Brandon McCoy, and Michael Tolaydo. Lighting design: Dan Covey . Sound design: Elisheba Ittoop. costume design: Tim Mackabee . Produced by Theater J .Reviewed by Hunter Styles