It took Mosaic Theater Company no time to forge a social justice identity beyond the Jewish lens of Theater J, where Mosaic Artistic Director Ari Roth had worked for nearly two decades until his firing at the end of 2014. But the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, begun in 2000 under Roth at Theater J, continues at the impressive young Mosaic as one of the most valuable streams in Washington theater.
Of course, the shows can be provocative, a fact of art that still surprises some folks in politics and business. The festival’s body of work probes one of the most intractable conflicts in the modern world, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff characterized for many people by paralysis and futility, and with Israel now having occupied the West Bank for 50 years. Meantime, lives are lived and policies are debated, and the reality of what’s dramatized in these plays is always palpable. The festival perpetually reminds Washington audiences of complexities on the ground and the real costs of the status quo.
The current play is the two-character “The Return” by Palestinian American actor-writer Hanna Eady and U.S. writer Edward Mast, and the taut 75-minute performance slowly teases out the fraught relationship between an Israeli woman and an Arab Palestinian auto mechanic in Israel. She thinks they have a shared history; he politely insists she’s mistaken. John Vreeke’s production captures how cautiously, even fearfully they speak together. Sentences are gingerly stated, as if any given word might land on a mine.
It finally happens, of course — and you can tell something will erupt by the way actor Ahmad Kamal flinches whenever the woman (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) uses the word “Palestinian.” Gradually, we learn what his “crime” was, and how their paths intersected 13 years ago, before she spent eight years away in America.
Dramas featuring this kind of withheld information can be too coy, but Vreeke positions his two sharp actors on a narrow strip stage with the audience on opposite sides. That creates a sustained faceoff that never loses its tension, and a show with no wasted motion. Your eyes dart back and forth between Keegan’s carefully probing woman and Kamal’s patient, wary man. Their chess match is finely charted.
You feel the pressure of the security state that apparently watches them closely. That makes “The Return” a natural companion for “Ulysses on Bottles,” the Gilad Evron drama about a teacher imprisoned by a controlling government that opened this spring’s festival. Yet it also connects to Mosaic’s recent South African rep of “The Blood Knot” and “A Human Being Died That Night,” and to the race history in America that Mosaic has pointedly explored this year. The man’s Arab identity is the sticking point, and a rant about what the word “Palestinian” really means is one of the most penetrating passages of the night.
The title of “The Return” refers not only to the woman’s appearance in the auto shop. It eventually gets to a deeper history, raising the kind of question that was ultimately too difficult to pose at Theater J in plays like Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” which wound its way back to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
“The Return” is hardly a full portrait of the unsettled Israeli-Palestinian dilemma: it’s a voice, one of many to be given a platform by the festival that has always insisted on deep exploration and informed conversation. The performance by Kamal and Keegan — full of listening, compassion and pain, marked by deep unhealed wounds — is as compelling as it could be, and it’s in a well-worn groove of art about individuals pinned down by governmental superstructures and ingrained cultural patterns that become shamefully reductive and extraordinarily difficult to break.
It’s a play that some will disagree with — par for the course with the festival, which is why 15 post-show discussions are scheduled with experts in a variety of fields. That’s the great ongoing invitation of this program: Watch a show. Talk it out.
The Return, by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast. Directed by John Vreeke. Set and lights, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Jeannette Christensen; sound design, Sarah O’Halloran. About 75 minutes. Through July 2 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $15-$60. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.