By Motti Lerner
Directed by Sinai Peter
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Ronnie Ruff
The view from the bright, sun-washed living room in this middle eastern village is unlike any you see on CNN every night. No smoke from exploded car bombs and the carnage that ensues, no images of children with tears rolling down their young, innocent faces. What we do see could be a modern vacation home in the hills of southern California or maybe Italy’s southern Adriatic coast. It is the visual similarities to our own world that draw us into this Israeli family’s home and then into their complicated lives.
Shmuel’s (Michael Tolaydo) family is one of the families that has settled in Palestinian lands beyond pre-war borders and the fierce international conflict. Set in the not too distant future, the family is dealing with the daily problems of an average American family: pregnancy, infertility, visiting family members, building a new home and just getting everyone to the dinner table. It is not long before the TV flickers for breaking news; an announcer on cable news describes a potential Palestinian – Israeli peace accord that one would think would have this family jumping for joy. Nothing could be further from the truth however because Shmuel is a local right wing political leader who has led his people into the settlement they call home. The potential accord would mean his family would have to leave their homes much like the Palestinians that they replaced.
As the reported peace draws near Shmuel’s family becomes more fractured. The TV announcer keeps us informed with amazing regularity of the political events as they happen. Shmuel’s son-in-law Benny (Joel Reuben Ganz) and son Avner (John Johnston) push for resistance against the accord and its supporters, while his wife Tirtzah, (Becky Peters) argues that non-violence is the only way to keep their homes. Benny’s wife Chava (Lindsay Haynes) is just trying to keep her husband out of jail – he was previously convicted of terrorist acts against Palestinians. With all of this family strife and confusion, Shmuel’s son Nadav (Alexander Strain) is completely unaware of how symbolic the building of his new home has become.
Written by Motti Lerner, Pangs of the Messiah (this is an English language world premier) was written 20 years ago but is relevant today. Lerner develops the characters of this play with sensitivity and depth. Both Shmuel and his young disabled son Nadav are complex characters. Shmuel leads with a peaceful yet rhetoric filled call to action that those drawn to violence could misinterpret easily. His underlying motives are questionable and he seems to struggle with the lines he has drawn for himself in the sand. Nadev’s sweet disposition and simple desires cover an underlying sadness but not the deep devotion he has for his father. It is Nadev that represents those caught in the middle of the conflict –he is very content pleasing his father and working with his hands but cannot run away from his family’s destiny.
The cast performs this play with all of the sensitivity needed for such a complex subject but takes the chances needed to make the piece exceptional. Michael Tolaydo is powerful and forceful as his character fights to keep his family together. Alexander Strain displays a sincere lovability that is without doubt the most engaging performance in the show. Lindsay Haynes, Becky Peters, John Johnston and Joel Reuben Ganzl provide admirable showings and Laura Giannarelli as Shmuel’s wife is the strong , solid rock the family needs when the male characters make all the wrong decisions leading to a surprising but inevitable ending. Her performance is exceptional.
The design team is also absolutely wonderful – both visually and sonically. The modern interior of the family home combined with the sleek glass exterior is exactly opposite of the scenes we see each evening on cable news. These clashes in our perceptions of Middle East life bring to the forefront the extent of our misunderstanding.
Pangs of the Messiah is the anchor production of the Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival. If the rest of the festival is as good this, Theater J is ending the season with powerful productions worthy of your time and support.
(Running time: 2:10) Pangs of the Messiah continues at Theatre J thru July 22. 1529 Sixteenth St, NW, Washington, DC 20036 Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm. Saturdays at 8 pm. Sundays at 3 pm and 7:30 pm. No shows on Friday. Tickets: $40 – $45. To order, call 1 800 494-TIXS or visit the website.