By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011; 6:46 PM
Two mothers fighting over one son seems reliable arithmetic for dramatic fireworks. When one of the women is Palestinian and the other Israeli, the results are mathematically devastating.
Such is the wrenching impact of "Return to Haifa," the new Israeli play, based on a 1970 novella by a Palestinian writer and onetime spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that has arrived rippling with heartache at Theater J. The 95-minute piece, performed in Hebrew and Arabic with English surtitles, confronts the trauma of displacement on both sides, Jewish and Arab, so starkly and shatteringly that only the hardest of hard-liners could fail to be moved.
The drama by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon, adapted from the book by Ghassan Kanafani - who was assassinated in a 1972 car bombing in Beirut - comes to Washington in a production of simmering emotionality by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, one of Israel's premier companies. The cast of Jewish and Arab actors, guided by the intuitively gifted director Sinai Peter, embraces the combustible complexity of the story as if character and dialogue were elements meant to be inhaled.
Theater J's artistic director, Ari Roth, and the organization that sponsors his company, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, are presenting an authorized version of the work for the first time in this country, and unlike the Tel Aviv version, scenes of the play between the Palestinian characters have been translated into Arabic. For hosting Cameri - which demonstrates with this offering that it is indeed a troupe of international stature - Roth and the DCJCC deserve enormous credit. That the novelist's life included a connection to a group deemed a terrorist organization in much of the West might for some institutions have been a deal-breaker. Wisely, though, Theater J saw that Gaon's treatment of Kanafani's writing as a conduit for peace and compassion, not hostility and division.
With this work, too, Theater J propels itself to a new level of engagement with its audience and, perhaps, to the forefront of theaters exposing Americans to drama that stirs the conscience as it illuminates aspects of Jewish culture.
We wait for the theater to deliver moments of outsize enlightenment, to show us events we did not know we needed to see - until we see them. Gaon's play builds inexorably to one such event, an encounter that reduces a tragedy of abstract vastness to one breathtaking meeting. In "Return to Haifa," a Palestinian couple suddenly comes face to face with the son lost to them long ago, raised as a Jew and now an Israeli soldier. The sad ramifications extend to the Israeli woman who has brought him up, a refugee from Poland who'd lost her only child in the Holocaust.
Whose suffering has ennobled them more? One of the strengths of "Return to Haifa" is that you can't unravel the pain. Like threads in a nest of tangled yarn, the grievances are fused into permanent knots.
The time is 1967, just after the Six-Day War, in which the Israeli military trounced its Arab neighbors, united Jerusalem and annexed the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. A middle-aged couple from the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sa'id (Suheil Haddad) and Saffiyeh (Raida Adon), taking advantage of a relaxation in border restrictions, ventures back to the ancestral home in Haifa they were forced to flee at the time of Israeli independence in 1948. In the chaos, apparently, they had abandoned an infant son, and the parents somehow suspect that he might have been found by the Jewish family that had acquired the house.
In flashbacks to '48, we see that this is very close to what happened: The Israeli authorities give priority for housing to families with children, and so, to help the childless Miriam (Rozina Kambos) and Ephraim (Nisim Zohar), a local official (Michael Teplitsky) hands over the baby boy who had been left in his crib by Sa'id and Saffiyeh.
You can see how the plot could have dissolved into florid melodrama. But the staging and writing are demonstrably austere, as if director and dramatist were on guard against sensationalism; little time is spent on surprising twists. Gaon and Peter get out of the way of the powerful story and let the characters do the rest. As a result, the play's first hour or so - leading up to and including the now-widowed Miriam's grudging agreement to hear out the adamant Sa'id and Saffiyeh - rather placidly and matter-of-factly lays a foundation for the more explosive exchanges to come. (The one distraction is an interlude with an Israeli official, to show that the house ultimately is to be wrested from Miriam just as unfairly as it was from Sa'id and Saffiyeh.)
The actors handle their assignments with authority and grace. As Sa'id, Haddad projects earthy directness; you believe that he'd have no qualms, barreling right into a bruising confrontation. Zohar's Ephraim is soft in all the right ways. As the mothers, Kambos and Adon are models of ambiguity, advancing and retreating as they take each other's measure and, slowly and in different ways, beginning to grasp the other's sorrows.
The actresses' dignified portrayals peak in the play's blistering centerpiece scene, in which Miriam's uniformed son Dov (the terrific Erez Kahana) shows up and is introduced to his birthparents, who know him as Khaldun - a name, of course, he does not recognize. I won't describe the affecting permutations of how Dov receives them, except to say that, as the sequence unfolds, you will care for each and every one of these people.
Trying to resolve claims, as "Return to Haifa" suggests, is exhausting, even futile work, especially when so much of the evidence, on all sides, resides in the heart. So maybe the evening's most optimistic manifestation of the Middle East comes at the curtain call in the Goldman Theater, when the actresses playing the Palestinian and Israeli mothers step forward and collapse into each other's arms. "Return to Haifa" gives you cause to reflect on what might transpire if they never let go.
Return to Haifa adapted by Boaz Gaon from the novella by Ghassan Kanafani. Directed by Sinai Peter. Set, Frida Shoham; lighting and projections, Klyph Stanford; costumes, Ofra Confino; music, Mika Dany. About 95 minutes. Through Jan. 30 at Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-TIXS.