The latest in his series of provocative and fascinating scripts attempting to come to terms with Middle Eastern politics, Jason Sherman's "Reading Hebron" invites Noam Chomsky, Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said to Passover dinner for answers to questions both modern and ancient. Nathan Abramowitz (Michael Healey), a fictional North American Jew with a profound sense of dislocation from both Israel and religious Judaism, shares his table with these great thinkers and activists during a ritual that itself asks disturbing questions about the slavery of a people. The setting is only one of several clever and quirky devices Sherman uses to keep this wordy and heady script from becoming a dry polemic; in fact, what typically makes a Sherman play intriguing is how the playwright manages to dramatize the seemingly undramatizable.
In “Hebron” this talent emerges in an interweaving of interior and exterior dialogues, with characters breaking off to voice thoughts and then, without skipping a beat, returning to mundane reality. The result is often very funny and gives credence to the subtitle, “A Comedic Quest for Truth.” Director Brian Quirt keeps the characters moving as quickly as Sherman’s ideas.
The play’s anchor is the 1994 Hebron massacre, in which a Jew gunned down 29 Muslims inside a West Bank mosque. Nathan asks how this can have happened, who was really responsible, and how an oppressed people can become the oppressor.
The basic facts of that gruesome day are delivered via talking heads who peek out from elevated windows in designer Dany Lyne’s floor-to-ceiling limestone wall, while the stage is used as a kind of bloodied debating field in which Nathan’s personal life slams up against the political.
The four actors who play the ensemble parts convey the essence of each character, and Healey’s Nathan is a perfect blend of neurosis, dismay and dogged determination. Sherman’s continued weakness in drawing out his characters’ emotional lives is evident, but he tries: Nathan is a divorced father with a bitter wife, a nagging mother and a dissatisfied new amour, a trinity that remains stereotyped and incidental to the play.
In the hands of a lesser talent this would spell doom. But “Hebron” is so loaded with fascinating theories on what might have been behind the massacre — everything from a single madman to collusion by the Israeli government — that the flaws hardly matter. What makes this play one of the best half dozen new Canadian works this year is that it is impossible to view “Reading Hebron” without caring passionately about the fate of Jews and Palestinian Arabs alike. And that, whether in the dramatic or political arena, is a worthy feat indeed.