Monday, February 22, 2010

Humanizing a Dramatic Conflict (or vice-versa)

Theater Review

Return to Haifa
A World Premiere play by M.E.H. Lewis
Next Theatre, Evanston, IL

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't exactly a new story, and while people from all sides can get worked up over the geopoliticial ramifications and debate the pros & cons, merits & madness of a two-state solution, as complicated as the big picture seems to be, viewing the situation in individual, human terms can be even more discomfiting.

Inspired by a 1970 novella of the same name by Ghassan Kanafani, and supposedly similar in some ways to a book called The Lemon Tree, Return to Haifa--presented as a world premiere at the Next Theatre in Evanston's Noyes Cultural Center--is a newly-penned play by M.E.H. Lewis, herself an Evanston resident. Commissioned and directed by Next Artistic Director, Jason Southerland, the play centers around the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, the arrival of European Jews and the resultant displacement of Arabs, in this case from the port city of Haifa.

To humanize this weighty topic, Lewis and Southerland focus primarily on just two Jews--husband & wife Holocaust survivors--and two Arabs--a similarly upstanding couple who has been living in Haifa, but are forced to flee their home. In coming to occupy their house just a few days later, the Jewish couple finds that the Palestinians have left behind a baby boy.

While essential to the play's plot, this twist did seem a bit implausible, and the First Act exposition leading up to it was a bit slow. But the Second Act, in which the Arabs return to their old house almost 20 years later, crackles with intensity and leaves the audience with a number of personal debates. Lewis, Southerland and several actors from the fine cast of six conducted a post-show discussion in which some audience members were as emotionally-charged as the play's characters.

So while not quite a perfect play, Return to Haifa is a very good and challenging one that leaves you with plenty to think about. But while I would happily advise that you should be able to get 1/2 price tickets on HotTix, that relegated us to sitting in an ad hoc back row with no elevation above the rows in front of it. The tickets weren't sold as obstructed view, but clearly were, diminishing an otherwise enjoyable and enriching afternoon of theater.

Yet while I am a bit disappointed with Next in this regard, I have been regularly finding them to be putting on stellar productions, making them one of my favorite local theaters--on par with Timeline and Profiles at a level just below, though sometimes above, Steppenwolf and Goodman.

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