Apples From the Desert


Editorial Review

Fresh battles of the Old World
By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, December 20, 2012

The father in Savyon Liebrecht’s “Apples From the Desert” is characterized in brief, efficient strokes, and he is a villain. Tuesday’s audience at Theater J groaned in dismay at an early, casual insult he utters about his 18-year-old daughter.

Michael Tolaydo is utterly expert as Reuven, the Orthodox Jewish patriarch who can’t control his daughter Rivka, even though the role is arguably overblown and underwritten. The first act of Liebrecht’s drama is so steeped in Old World conflict -- everything threatens to snap when Reuven arranges a cruelly unsuitable marriage for his radiant young Rivka -- that the melodrama practically creaks with age.

Yet Theater J is perhaps the best of all Washington troupes at keeping a foot in the real world, thanks in part to a steady repertory dealing with conditions in and around Israel. “Apples From the Desert” is the first of two plays in this year’s “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival, and before the first act is over, the painful clash between fundamentalism and secularism doesn’t feel so distant after all.

Neither will Liebrecht’s focus on her women as they try to cope. The drama is adapted from her well-known short story from the early 1980s; in that more terse telling, which is available online, including at Theater J’s Web site, a wife finally wiggles out from under her husband’s loveless thumb in an Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood to visit her runaway daughter on a secular kibbutz.

The play -- thoughtfully acted in Johanna Gruenhut’s able, pointed production -- gives the husband more presence, and his appearances onstage are brief but so forceful (particularly in Tolaydo’s controlled, powerful performance) that the women still define themselves in his shadow. Jennifer Mendenhall is understated and moving as Reuven’s wife, Victoria; imagine a turtle pulling its head into its shell, and you get an idea of Mendenhall’s hardened, protective portrait of a bullied woman.

Sarah Marshall plays Victoria’s spinster sister -- a hunchback, no less! -- and delivers a light performance that has to rank among this longtime D.C. actress’s most delicate and affecting. The show needs the sad yet bright sparkle that Marshall brings here; the quirky elusiveness is a redemptive counter to Reuven’s leaden threats.

The tall Blair Bowers is ideal for Rivka’s blooming physicality, and she frees up splendidly as Rivka sheds a starchy uniform for the casual work togs of the kibbutz. Costume designer Timothy R. Mackabee is sensitive to the play’s attention to clothing -- even underwear gets discussed -- and his simple set shifts easily from Reuven and Victoria’s Jerusalem dining room to the open air of the kibbutz. (It also deftly creates clear inner and outer rings of acceptance.)

Bowers and Brandon McCoy, as Rivka’s beau on the kibbutz, are a winsome match, lanky and blissful, and their spirit of tolerance and reconciliation finally carries the play. “Apples” ends up as feel-good stuff, although it’s arguably too tidy and sentimental -- certainly more emotionally aggressive than the original story.

Its pursuit of grace is nonetheless affecting, and the story whets the appetite for the festival’s second installment as Bowers, Marshall and Tolaydo all move straight from the sweet “Apples” to a harder-edged play drawn from social protests last year in Israel: “Boged (Traitor),” a muckraking update on Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”

Seeking reconciliation and relief
By Maura Judkis
Friday, December 14, 2012

A battlefield in the news lately -- southern Israel, outside of Gaza -- is a battlefield of another sort in two plays presented by Theater J. But rather than Iron Dome and Pillar of Cloud, the two plays, “Apples From the Desert” and “Boged: An Enemy of the People,” deal with much smaller battles -- between parents and a child, or a town’s mayor and his brother.

“We started rehearsal the day or day before the cease-fire was called,” says Johanna Gruenhut, who is directing “Apples From the Desert.” “I think there was a delicacy stepping into the rehearsal room in the beginning of the process.”

“When missiles are falling on southern Israel, and lives are being disrupted, you want to know something about the lives there,” says Theater J artistic director Ari Roth. The plays complement each other in their handling of Israeli domestic conflicts, past and present. “One is warm,” he says, “and the other one is fire.”

The warm play, “Apples From the Desert,” opens Saturday and kicks off this season’s Voices From a Changing Middle East festival. Though the play takes place in 1979, it deals with a subject that still rings true: old-fashioned parents’ disappointment in their daughter’s choice of lifestyle and mate. Rivka, a girl who grows up in Jerusalem in a deeply religious Sephardic household, breaks away from her parents, who must reexamine their own choices in life. The tension between Orthodox and secular Israel also has escalated this year, with the country described as approaching a cultural crossroads. The play is based on a short story by Savyon Liebrecht, who will read from her work at Theater J on Sunday.

When it comes to Israeli plays, “often the domestic problems are overlooked because of the bigger problems facing her as a country,” Gruenhut says. “The metaphor of this play, it takes the family and it shows that every type of family member -- religious, secular, Asheknaz, Sephardi -- can break bread together. That can be applied to all types of people -- Israeli, Palestinian, American.”

Contrast that warm play with the fire of “Boged,” which will premiere Jan. 12 at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, in the Gonda Theatre. Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez’s play, set in the present day and based on Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” addresses the social justice movement in Israel through a scientist who discovers that his town is in danger from a chemical leak, while his brother, the mayor, tries to cover it up.

“The fact that Boaz continues to revise ‘Boged,’ you can be sure that some remnants of the recent events in Gaza will find themselves in the play,” Roth says.

But for both plays, the moments of reconciliation, not the tumultuous setting, are most important. “Apples From the Desert” speaks globally about long-overdue and difficult conversations that, at last, bring understanding.

“Here is a play that harnesses intense social conflict, but actually has a kind of relief point, a peacemaking quality to it, that is really appreciated,” Roth says.

“There’s forgiveness at the end of this play,” Gruenhut says, “and that’s a really heartening thing. We’re living in difficult times. Sometimes it’s not cool to have messages like that.”