In Theater J’s spellbinding premiere of Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” the legacy of Israel’s violent birth seems to bubble and swirl continually, as if being fed by a bottomless subterranean pool of anguish.
The wrenching production mounted by director Sinai Peter, with a cast led by the remarkable Danny Gavigan and Michael Tolaydo, harrowingly boils down the ingrained suspicions and grievances of Jews and Arabs to one disputed incident, a purported massacre of Arab villagers during the 1948 war that won Israel its independence as a Jewish state.
That a charge of genocide leveled at Jewish soldiers can be a deeply disturbing and inflammatory act is reflected in the controversy that has surrounded this play ever since Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, announced he would stage its world premiere. (Lerner, an Israeli dramatist, had been unable to get a production done in his own country.) A protest of the play by a local ad-hoc group that called on donors to withhold money from agencies supporting Theater J led to pressure by the D.C. Jewish Community Center — which houses the theater company — to scale back “The Admission.” Originally planned as a fully staged, 34-performance production, it was reduced to a 16-performance “workshop” offering.
The wonderful, unsparing clarity with which Lerner paints all the characters of “The Admission” exposes the folly of having tried to muffle its impact. The play — perhaps the best yet by the author of “Pangs of the Messiah” and “The Murder of Isaac” — speaks too plainly and with too much emotional authority to be contained. And oddly enough, the emphasis on theatrical basics forced on Peter and his actors proves to be a blessing. There’s little evidence here of a work in progress. All an audience really needs, on this occasion in the D.C. JCC’s Goldman Theater, is access to Lerner’s words.
Good theater does not depend on an investigative journalist’s fealty to who, what, when, where and why. It succeeds when it finds metaphors that illuminate deeper truths, those that don’t necessarily correspond to one verifiable set of facts. And the reality that “The Admission” boldly explores has to do with the opposing versions of calumny that Jews and Palestinians cultivate, competing archives of victimization that minimize the other side’s scars and keep the wounds — and mistrust — forever fresh.
Attempts to establish moral equivalencies in Israel’s painful past, and present — and “The Admission” reminds us, yet again, how unfair has been the proportion of global suffering dealt to this sliver of the world — are offensive to some. But it’s important to point out that while “The Admission” promulgates the idea that a terrible reprisal occurred in the Arab village of “Tantur,” the barely disguised name of the town, Tantura, where just such a crime is alleged to have taken place, Lerner’s play is more interested in the residual layers of guilt, fear and psychic pain on all sides of the conflict than it is in laying out a hard-nosed exposé.
The two families of “The Admission,” one of Israeli Jews, the other Israeli Arabs, are written with commendable complexity, and the actors, to a person, apply successfully for our compassion. This is not agitprop: It’s a play about communal tragedy in a place where the division of community itself is tragic. It’s a story in which the point of view of every character — even Tolaydo’s Avigdor, the ex-commanding officer who insists no war crime was committed — feels respected. And yet, the judgment of “The Admission” is a harsh one. For in the pivotal character of Giora, Avigdor’s son, grievously wounded in war, and marinating in despair over his own wartime actions, Lerner warns that every civilized society must come to terms with the darkest acts committed in its name.
With his portrayal of Giora, the virile, magnetic Gavigan exceeds the high standards he has set in the past: It’s a heart-crushing performance. Hunched and dragging his frame across the stage on metal crutches, Gavigan manages to convey, in body language and intense countenance, the idea that Giora is bearing on his back the weight of his country.
The year is 1988; his father and mother (a compellingly brow-knitting Kimberly Schraf) are preparing to unveil a memorial to Giora’s older brother, Udi, who burned to death in an army tank. Giora, wounded in Lebanon several years earlier — Lerner often appoints himself a grim accountant of Israel’s wars — is about to leave a position as a professor of business and work in Avigdor’s construction firm. Those plans change after he’s presented with an unpublished dissertation by an Israeli scholar that accuses Avigdor and his men of having gathered villagers in “Tantur” during a military campaign 40 years earlier and executing them. Burdened with his own guilt, the son goes about extracting the real story of Tantur from his father.
Giora is the hub of several unsettling spokes of the play. Although he’s engaged to a Jew, Neta (Elizabeth Anne Jernigan), Giora is in love with an Arab graduate student, Samya (Leila Buck), whose education has been paid for by Avigdor, who also financed the cafe owned by Samya’s brother Azmi (Pomme Koch). That support, apparently, is why Azmi and their father, Ibrahim (Hanna Eady), have kept quiet about the events Ibrahim says he witnessed as a young man in Tantur — a silence that’s shattered on the fateful day Avigdor visits the restaurant, and Ibrahim finally explodes.
The latticework of interdependency that Lerner constructs contributes to a sense of deep connection among these characters — and so it’s shocking at how quickly, when a secret history is dredged up, it all unravels. Koch is particularly strong as a pragmatic younger Arab man who wants as fervently as Avigdor to bury the past. Buck and Jernigan contribute rich portrayals of women of equal integrity and devotion. And Tolaydo is simply extraordinary, in his application of Avigdor’s placid mask, of keeping us in suspense about what actually transpired, why it might have happened and how culpable he truly feels.
I could go on, because “The Admission” is one of those plays you obsess about for hours after the lights come up. Much of the credit for that goes to director Peter, for seeing to it that the production maintains an admirable balance and masters the art of restraint. This approach magnifies the sense of a society, embodied by Giora, in the dark, groping for the truth. As Lerner portrays it, the exact nature of the crime may remain murky, but the consequences of it could not be more devastating.
By Motti Lerner. Directed by Sinai Peter. Sets and costumes, Frida Shoham; lighting and projections, Klyph Stanford; music, Habib Shehadeh Hanna; fight consultant, Paul Gallagher; translator, Johanna Gruenhut. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets, $15-$45. Through April 6 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.