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.”
by Savyon Liebrecht. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Lights, Dan Covey; sound design, Elisheba Ittoop. About one hour and 50 minutes. Through Jan. 6 in the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or go to boxofficetickets.com.