The terrible consequences of war never make for short summary, but the ongoing loss of our children is surely the most egregious crime on the list. In some families, the smallest and most innocent disappear completely. In others, it’s in the transformations a child goes through during wartime – the small and large tragedies through which he learns, too soon, to be an adult – that the real losses breed.
In Return To Haifa, both calamities converge in one man – a son split between two families. Dov (Erez Kahana) was born of Palestinians and raised to fight for Israel by his Jewish surrogate parents. But the political symmetry of the story is the tidiest part of a production that, with deeply textured performances and a reverence for emotional detail, seeks to take a familiar piece of genre work – the Middle East conflict play – down from the flagpole, shake it out, and apply human touch to interwoven threads that so easily and frequently grow starchy.
Directed by Sinai Peter, the piece is vivid, upsetting, and full of genuine grace. Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon has made deft work of adapting this story from the 1968 novella by author Ghassan Kanafani – a project that has been, in Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth’s words, “A landmark Israeli effort to better understand one of the most seminal narratives in Palestinian literature.” The show will run for two weeks as the anchoring event for Theater J’s fourth annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival. Further information about author Ghassan Kanafani and the development of the play can be found in an enlightening feature by Peter Certo, also on this site.
Performed by a Jewish-Israeli and Arab cast, the production had made its way to DC from The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv with the original languages intact. Theatregoers will hear nary a word of English, and although we can comprehend much of the story through actors’ sobs, laughs, and body language, be prepared to look consistently to the supertitles projected above the set. In a program note, Roth explains: “We are showing this play in Hebrew (and some Arabic) because that is the only way the Kanafani family wished the play to be shared in North America; as an Israeli adaptation; not the definitive English language version.”
It may take a few minutes to settle comfortably into reading and watching simultaneously, but the acoustic treasures of hearing six actors laugh, groan, yell, and sigh this dramatic landscape into being make for all the difference between looking out comfortably at a city through an airplane window and being made to walk its beautiful, broken streets with your own two feet. The set, by Israeli designer Frida Shoham, sweeps away the visual boundaries between inside and outside – an appropriate blurring of lines given the unreliability of this house in keeping anyone safely in or out.
Miriam (Rozina Kambos) is frightened by this flux even in the first moments she is presented with the infant Dov – left by his real parents Sa’id (Suheil Haddad) and Saffiyeh (Raida Adon) during their sudden forced flight from Haifa. Miriam’s husband Ephraim (Nisim Zohar) pleads with her to agree to accept the orphan as their own, but her gut tells her not to concede. “Because he has a mother,” she says. “And one day she’ll come back… and I’ll die a second time.” Saffiyeh, it turns out, isn’t the only mother who’s lost a son. Ephraim, however, doesn’t have the same qualms about taking up a lost Palestinian baby and raising him Jewish. “They’ve taken everything from us,” he insists. “We’re allowed to take as well.”
When Sa’id and Saffiyeh do, inevitably, return, playwright Gaon makes elegant work of the tremendously heightened, troubling encounter. Kambos is especially impressive as the brave, weary Miriam, whose touches of humor throughout highlight her chronic underlying pain without a drop of maudlin. As she tells stories of Dov’s boyhood — with his real parents sitting next to her in her living room, listening – we learn of the nervous fears and nightmares that plagued the child for years. But when the adult Dov finally comes home – an act we await for much of the play – it also becomes clear that he’s not necessarily the victim his four parents have come to presume he is. Even in a land of half-histories and fraught identities, a lost boy can come to find himself.
Return To Haifa
Adapted by Boaz Gaon from the novella by Ghassan Kanafani
Directed by Sinai Peter
Produced by The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv
Presented by Theater J
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.