All that is hopeless, intractable and depressing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be found in the struggle over the West Bank, which is the setting of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s “Pangs of the Messiah.” A hard-hitting and mostly satisfying examination of Middle Eastern perspectives, the drama is being presented in its English language premiere at D.C.’s Theater J, an 11-year-old theater specializing in works featuring a Jewish context.
In “Pangs,” Theater J tackles Middle East issues head-on from the uncompromising perspective of settlers eager to dedicate their lives to their homeland. The production is part of a six-week festival called “Voices From a Changing Middle East” that also includes readings and bare-bones productions of plays by Jewish, Christian and Muslim authors.
Recently translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and updated by Lerner, 20-year-old “Pangs” is set in 2012. It examines a family of settlers whose lives are about to be upended by an American-brokered peace accord that will create a Palestinian state on their land.
A broad swath of views on life and religion is embraced by the extended family’s members. Patriarch Shmuel (Michael Tolaydo) is a powerful rabbi dedicated to his flock. Although a man of peace, his zealousness has provoked violence from loyal followers that threatens to undermine the cause. Those extremists include his son Avner (John Johnston) and son-in-law Benny (Joel Reuben Ganz).
With the exception of two circumspect wives (Laura Giannarelli, Becky Peters), the family members are defiant ideologues incapable of entertaining any competing points of view on the settlement issue. They have no sympathy for other innocent souls, nor a broader vision for a balanced peace process. Playwright Lerner paints a profoundly pessimistic view of Middle East politics.
Nonetheless, the situation’s bewildering complexity is pounded home in the fast-paced saga that seldom takes a breather under Israeli director Sinai Peter’s guiding hand. Set in the rabbi’s modern West Bank living room, which also serves as command central for the resistance, tensions steadily mount as life on the front lines becomes ever more precarious.
The exercise delivers a deeply personal account of the lives and frustrations of individual settlers that generally is missing from media reports. Principal thesps render first-rate performances, especially the cast’s three women who portray lives of perpetual dread. As Rabbi Shmuel, Tolaydo personifies the mixture of strength and frailty that often defines the region. Johnston and Ganz are also convincing as radicals.
While the combination of relentless fanaticism and frenetic plot comes close to overloading its circuits, the play offers an earnest and illuminating probe of the settlers’ mindset, something often overlooked in a world choked with stereotypes.