Although controversy has swirled around the upcoming workshop presentation of The Admission at Theater J, artistic director Ari Roth is is looking beyond it.
“The play’s the thing,” says Roth, speaking in his office at the DC JCC. “We’re all about the play leading the way. The controversy is not the thing, the workshop drama is not the thing, it’s what’s at stake in the work itself.”
The scaled-down nature of the production – in this case, “workshop production” means less set elements, smaller budget, etcetera – has meant that the company has focused even more closely on the script and the story being told.
“In some ways… it’s liberated the conversation to be even more about the play and less about how are we going to make this effect happen,” says Roth. “Being swept up in the controversy and the solidarity and the commitment that happened from October on, [there’s been] this real sense of unity and solidarity amongst the actors, and the playwright, and the theater. And that brought us to the very momentous beginning of rehearsals…. everyone has been remarking on the intensity, and the intimacy of it.”
Theater J has a long and intimate history with playwright Motti Lerner, having produced 5 of his works previously, including Pangs of the Messiah and Passing the Love of Women, and worked to get his plays produced in New York and elsewhere. And Roth – who is credited as a co-translator for The Admission – has been personal friends with Lerner for over two decades. Accordingly, the company has worked extensively with the writer on the revising process for the past four years (Lerner began writing nearly a decade ago), and has influenced the nature of the script.
“The original conception was to have a character go mad,” says Roth. “And the meaning of that madness and that descent into defeat was built into the very European dramaturgy that [Lerner] had conceived for the play. … Americans don’t like to see that kind of play.”
Roth and Theater J have helped Lerner add a heroic dimension to the main character, Giora, an injured Israeli veteran who finds himself caught between the family of Samya, the Palestinian woman he loves, and his father Avigdor, who has his building over the site of what may have been a massacre during the war of 1948 that established the State of Israel. The play is, in this, influenced by Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which according to Roth is a “very very iconic play” in Israel. The Admission plants the plot in 1988, at a dark and difficult time in the region’s history, not long after the First Intifada began.
“The challenge [has been] to make what could be a very depressing and defeatist story and to turn it into something that is worthy of admiration, and a character that we really come to identify with, not lose his hold on us,” Roth says. “American audiences are a little less fond of a hero who alienates everybody and on whom everyone turns their back. So it’s very very important that, in this play Giora, win an ally. That he wins one of the arguments. Who is on Giora’s side at the end of this… is the big question.”
The Admission has also been influenced by the changing political climate over the years.
“The play has absolutely kept up with its times and the arguments that it’s spawned,” Roth says. “In many ways the play has been ahead of its time in the importance of revisiting 1948.”
Debate has been raging of late over whether Israelis committed massacres against Palestinians in the cities of Lydda or Tantura during the war in 1948 – although ‘debate’ may be putting it mildly, considering the stakes the two sides sides see, in either revealing a long-denied war crime or quashing a ‘blood libel’ against the Israelis.
“We’re looking at a variety of portraits of 1948,” Roth says. “To solve the political troubles of the present… if you want two states, you’re going to have to deal with two narratives, and recognize what the other experience is.”
Roth sees more than just the two sides to the matter, and doesn’t feel that support of Israel is incompatible with acknowledging or at least investigating what happened in Lydda and Tantura.
“Reaffirming Zionism… to believe again in Israel, recognizing the things that went wrong, recognizing the blind spots,” says Roth, speaking of an argument made in Ari Shavit’s 2013 book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. “Within the ideology, and within the national enterprise of building the homeland, [we’re] not saying that because there’s blind spots that it’s an illegitimate venture.”
“Even in good wars bad things happen,” he continues. “I’ll say that again. Even in good wars bad things happen. That’s one takeaway. We’ve had our share of bad wars. But the battle of 1948, that was a good war! As they say in the play, ‘no war was more just.’ …But “within this good war you’ve got this refugee crisis spawned.”
For these reasons, Roth sees this play as Lerner’s “most universal,” and is certain that there is more for the broader D.C. audience, as Americans, to grasp on to than in any of his previous productions. In other words, it’s about more than the question of history in Israel and Palestine.
“This play makes you think about our own national responsibilities and the cost to building a nation here. And how we become a more moral country in addressing the enduring injustices by going back and looking at the past and creating corrections and forging a more peaceful future. The way that we continue to confront the worst aspects of ourselves… We can relate to this as Americans. The American project has blind spots” too, he says, such as slavery and continuing racism.
“That’s why this play is so worth fighting for, because it’s – it’s big art, and it has big relevance and resonance and that’s why it matters to a greater audience than just those who would think it’s speaking to a narrow JCC [Jewish Community Center] crowd.”
Along those mass-appeal lines, Roth finds there is much to love in Lerner’s story, beyond the important and timely themes.
“I have to confess – I’m a huge fan of the love triangle in the play,” he says. “And that’s really the front drama of this. An Israeli has been in love with a Palestinian woman for years. Before his injury. And the war in Lebanon has gotten between them. Whatever is an Israeli and a Palestinian to do with their love affair? And he’s engaged to be married to an Israeli businesswoman whom the parents adore. He’s in recovery mode [from injury in Lebanon] and he’s trying to put a life together, but he still loves the Palestinian woman… and the tensions [due to the Intifada] make a union impossible.”
“Yet what triumphs,” Roth says, “in the end, is the relationship.”
THE ADMISSION previews March 20 – 24 and opens March 27 through April 6 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets: $15 to $45 Details and tickets.