Among all the fraught issues which torment the tortured search for peace in the Middle East, none spark a greater intransigence on the part of the State of Israel than the Right of Return — which is to say, the right of Palestinians chased from their homes in the revolution which established Israel in 1948 to return to those homes and recover their property.
No matter which side of the question you come down on, you can easily see the stakes on both sides. For the Palestinians it is a matter of justice and human rights to recover that which was taken from them by violence and threat of violence. For Israel, it is a question of national identity: if the millions of expelled Palestinians, and their descendents, return to their homeland from Jordan and Egypt, the idea that the Jewish identity of the state — as important to them as that it be democratic — will be at risk.
But the commitment to protect the Jewish identity of the State has led to extraordinary, even barbaric, measures. One such measure is the extreme discouragement of Jewish intermarriage, particularly with Arabs. (Not statutorily prohibited, as this interesting article describes, but impossible to do within Israel, where the Orthodox Chief Rabbi controls all weddings and does not allow it.) If we permit a Jew to marry an Arab, the reasoning goes, their children will not be of pure blood, and eventually the Jewish identity will become extinct. Thus, for example, even the mention of such a relationship becomes an issue: the Israeli Education Ministry has banned Borderlife, a Jewish-Arab love story, from being taught in Israeli schools.
Well. It is difficult to distinguish this argument from other racial-purity stances, and when we get down to cases — as we do in Hannah Eady and Edward Mast’s The Return — it can become downright horrifying. A Palestinian man (Ahmad Kamal) once loved a Jewish woman (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), and she loved him — until she did not. They were in bliss, until they were not. It was an affair of the heart, free from race and politics, until it was not.
And so they meet thirteen years later, the man having had time in an Israeli correctional facility to meditate on his actions; the woman having escaped to America for the last eight years to reconsider what she has done. She is full of remorse — and an American-style belief in her rights — and wants to undo her past. He has made his fragile peace with the State, and wants nothing that would undo it.
This is a mystery play, so to tell more about the plot would be to undo it, to your disadvantage. It is also a political play, which means that it gives voice to grievance and argument, and not always in places where they might occur normally in conversation, (and also in reviews that start with three paragraphs of history and politics).
Eady and Mast’s point of view is no secret: they mean to illuminate how much the State of Israel’s establishment cost the people of Palestine, in personal and specific terms. They use Talia, the Jewish woman, to make their broader points, and Keegan’s struggle not to let her slip into caricature is generally successful.
closes July 2, 2017
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Kamal is given the meatier task of portraying a man who has given up his identity and who struggles, almost against his will, to recover it over the course of the play, and he does a first-rate job. Impeccably cool at the outset, he allows his character to crumble by degrees, giving way to frustration, anger, fear, remorse, regret, recovering himself and then, at the end, becoming the sort of person you suspect he was before all of this misery came down upon his head. Director John Vreeke deserves his renown for getting good performances out of his actors; he gets an excellent one from Kamal.
Mosaic has elected to use a light touch on its production values, to good effect. We are in an auto shop in the seaside town of Herzliya, but we could be in any city in a high-security state. Colin K. Bills’ minimalist set does the job, and Bills (lighting) and Sarah O’Halloran (sound) keep us in mind of the threat and tension surrounding us.
The Return is occasionally didactic, and the fact that the most important actions all took place thirteen years in the past makes it a little more remote than optimal. Nonetheless, it’s not one-sided or unfair; the antagonists — never seen — are not monsters, but frightened people, like our characters, and like us. And there are electrifying moments, made more electrifying by excellent performances. And if you leave in a more reflective move than when you entered — well, there’s that, too.
The Return by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, directed by John Vreeke . Featuring Ahmed Kamel and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan . Set and lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Costume design: Jeannette Christensen . Sound design: Sarah O’Halloran . Properties: Michelle Elwyn . Stage manager: Bekah Wachenfeld . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC as part of their 2017 Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.