The Return

April 28, 2019

in Plays

by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast

Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon

Israeli Stage
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
April 26 – May 19, 2019

Scenic Designer: Cristina Todesco

With Nael Nacer (Him), Philana Mia (Her)

Rene Magritte, 'The Lovers' (1928)

Rene Magritte
“The Lovers” (1928)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

A superbly written and enacted drama about the relationship between an Arab-Palestinian man and a Jewish-Israeli woman.

This beautifully taut and artfully conceived play, and its exquisitely directed and acted production, is a justifiably noble capstone to the career of Israeli Stage, which has contributed immensely to the theater scene in Boston over the past nine years. This is the theater’s final show, and a wonderful one it is.

The quite-short (70 minutes) two-person play is set in an abstract background (powerfully designed by Cristina Todesco). Looking like a white folded ribbon, it officially represents the garage in Israel where the man (Nael Nacer) works; yet, in essence, it seems more like a Jewish wedding chuppah, a symbolic spatial covering that is meant to bestow an aura of holiness on the proceedings.

In this setting, the interaction concerns two former lovers whose involvement had been curtailed by an unfortunate sequence of events at some point in the past. As repeated attempts by the woman to re-introduce herself to the man unfold, one learns of their history. What initially seems like a confusion of identity turns out not to be so, and the attempt by the man to hide within anonymity is seen to be exactly what one might expect given the prevailing political and cultural prohibitions.

As director Guy Ben-Aharon (also founder and outgoing artistic director of Israeli Stage) clarified in the talkback after the performance, the theme of the play is based on an Israeli law called familiarly “rape by deception” which specifies that one cannot misrepresent one’s cultural identity in the process of engaging a romantic partner.

The Return is co-authored by two men, a Palestinian and a non-Jewish American, both based in Seattle. (Interestingly, in the talkback, Palestinian playwright Hana Eady, noted that he was married to a Jewish woman.) Israeli Stage has produced any number of plays about Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli relations, but this is the first of its productions which has featured a Palestinian author.

Performances by Nael Nacer (Him) and Philana Mia (Her) are superb. They both hold the intensity of the relationship and its tragic challenges with such poise that one feels truly placed in the midst of an emotional high-wire act. Their evocation through words is artfully executed, but the weight of their deliveries through a landscape of emotional subtext is powerfully compelling. Given the circumstance of surveillance, prohibition and the constant threat of being discovered, this sense of conveyed unsaid meaning resounds particularly deeply; these two excellent actors, under Ben-Aharon’s deft guidance, manage to hold, through gesture and expression, that charged sense throughout.

Over the years, candid talkbacks have been held at every performance by Israeli Stage, and this was no exception; during it, some audience members voiced the feeling that in sympathizing with the plight of a Palestinian Arab, and of a Jewish Israeli woman in a relationship with him, the play was slanted and not fair to the Jewish-Israeli perspective.

Certainly, this very well written and produced play is not an objective assessment, nor an unbiased documentary. It is an evocation of experience, a distillation of Israeli-Palestinian relations through a particular lens, deftly pointed. Powerful and well-done, it conveys the tragedy of its characters’ circumstance articulately and with nuance. Indeed, it neither is, nor claims to be, the last word on the subject, but it certainly is a thoughtful and powerful one. Beautifully written, expertly directed and acted, this last production of Israeli Stage is artfully conceived, thoughtful executed, and very much worth one’s time and attention.

– BADMan

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