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‘What does it mean to be a Jewish theater?’

Adam Immerwahr, the new artistic director at Theater J, photographed at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center. (Greg Kendall-Ball/For The Washington Post)

When the headhunter for the top job at Washington’s Theater J first contacted Adam Immerwahr last year, Immerwahr wasn’t sure he even wanted to be considered — not in the least because of the heavy public-relations baggage that went with it.

The company had come off the kind of bruising, public parting of ways with its former artistic director, Ari Roth, that organizations rarely recover from overnight. Roth, locked in conflict over some of his controversial play choices with the theater’s parent body, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, was dismissed in December 2014, a forced departure that convulsed the company and prompted loud protests about artistic freedom from Roth’s colleagues across the country.

Immerwahr, a Brown University graduate in his early 30s who spent a decade at New Jersey’s highly regarded McCarter Theater Center, starting as an intern and working his way up to associate artistic director, was ready for a new challenge. And as he thought more about the opportunity at Theater J, he became increasingly intrigued. Especially as he contemplated the questions the people involved in the search put to him, concerning what the J in Theater J might mean to him. As a theater lover and a secular Jew — one who was, in fact, the first in several generations of his family to celebrate his bar mitzvah — he found himself vigorously attracted to the notion of charting a new path for a company that involved these potentially interrelated facets of his life.

“One of the questions this theater has been examining for years is, what does it mean to be a Jewish theater?” Immerwahr said, during one of several recent conversations about his appointment. “I sensed in the search process that Theater J was struggling with this. I think there’s a lot of the opportunity in the J, and figuring out a way the theater can have a powerful impact in both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community.”

As a result, Immerwahr, both an experienced administrator and stage director, took the plunge, signing on last fall as Theater J's leader and succeeding interim artistic director Shirley Serotsky, who stayed on as his artistic second-in-command.

Settling in an unfamiliar city was the least of the adjustments this native of the Philadelphia suburbs had to make: In the aftermath of Roth's tumultuous, highly publicized ouster, the quarter-century-old Theater J was an operation psychically adrift. Roth's programming, which included a variety of comedies and dramas but drew headlines — and fire — for its highly charged political pieces about the Middle East, was prized by some portion of Theater J's advisory council and, more important, by the audience he cultivated over his 16 years at the helm of Theater J. Many of them have been following him to his fledgling venture, the Mosaic Theater Company on H Street NE, leaving Washington's theater world wondering just how robust Theater J could remain.

The selection of Immerwahr suggests that the DCJCC has cast a vote in favor of the continuation of independent thinking in the theater under its roof on 16th and Q streets NW — one considered by many to be the most influential Jewish theater company in the nation.

“We did a national search and, in fact, an international one,” said Carole Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s chief executive officer and a member of the search committee. “We were looking for someone who would continue to grow Theater J to the highest level. And we wanted to bring someone in who had a tremendous amount of artistic and intellectual rigor, and a track record and respect in the field.”

Of Immerwahr’s recruitment, she added, “These were the boxes, and we checked them all.”

Now, Immerwahr is starting to fill them in, too. He’s assembled the company’s 2016-2017 season, the first that will be of his own design, and it provides — with some titles one might expect, and some one might not — a glimpse into the way the new artistic director views his new perch. You could say that he’s trying to answer the question for himself: What does it mean for a new generation of playmakers to be the Jewish leader of a Jewish theater?

In tandem with some newly commissioned market research — astonishingly, Theater J has no figures on how much of its audience is Jewish — Immerwahr is trying to refine his own definition of what is a Jewish play. And it might surprise you to learn that for him, the category includes a play called "The Christians."

“It’s a different kind of provocative work than has been done here in the past,” he says of his choice of the drama by Lucas Hnath. Set in the sanctuary of an evangelical Christian church, the drama details a schism in the congregation over the pastor’s decision that he will no longer tolerate a belief in hell. (A play about a split in an organization presided over by a strong-willed leader? Hmm.)

The piece fits into one of the concepts that Immerwahr is developing, of Jewishness embodied in the themes and values of a theater piece without the work being ostensibly Jewish. "On the one hand, I'm eager to communicate over and over that we are Jewish, and that's essential to who we are," he said. "But by telling particular stories, we can also be universal. It leads over and over to ask the question, 'How is the play Jewish?' Which is a different question than, 'Is it Jewish?' "

"The Christians," to be staged by longtime Washington director Gregg Henry, will fill the second slot in a seven-play season. Other entries are by playwrights whose works have long been a part of the Theater J culture: Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and Arthur Miller's rarely produced "Broken Glass" will both be revived in Theater J's space during 2016-2017, and a seasonal offering, the Kinsey Sicks' effervescent "Oy Vey in a Manger," will be returning over the December holidays, following a successful Theater J engagement several years ago.

The artistic director will launch the season in September with his own directorial debut here, with an irreverent Jewish family play, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz.” Sarah Treem’s recent “The How and the Why” and a revival of Michael Frayn’s cerebral “Copenhagen” round out Immerwahr’s freshman roster.

One of Immerwahr’s tasks is wooing back some of the playgoers and donors who felt aggrieved by the Roth imbroglio; he acknowledges the company took a hit. But if there is any lingering animus toward Theater J among theater artists, he hasn’t felt it. Everyone he’s approached, he says, has expressed a desire to work with him. In addition to Henry, other locally established directors have been signed up for slots in the season, including Aaron Posner (“Broken Glass”), Eleanor Holdridge (“Copenhagen”) and Theater J’s own Serotsky (“The How and the Why”).

Immerwahr says that the JCC’s leadership has not discouraged him from considering plays from and about Israel. Even so, it is hard to imagine in the short term lightning-rod works such as Motti Lerner’s “The Admission” — a play mounted by Roth that detailed a massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers — appearing on the JCC’s Goldman Theater stage anytime soon.

Zawatsky said the JCC is eager to have Immerwahr set his own agenda. “It isn’t that we were open to it — we wanted it,” she said. “It’s up to Adam now, to say, ‘How do I define those Jewish values?’ ”

And, of course, to tantalize theatergoers with his definition. Outreach in Immerwahr’s mind goes far beyond those who have occupied seats in the DCJCC’s Goldman Theater in the past.

“There’s room to expand our reach into the non-Jewish community,” he said. “But there’s also an enormous population of Jews of all sorts who ought to feel that this is their home theater.”