A balanced perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian predicament is a rare commodity in the Middle East, one reason Ghassan Kanafani’s 1968 novella, “Return to Haifa,” is regarded as a seminal work within certain Arab countries. “Haifa’s” adaptation by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon makes its U.S. debut at D.C.’s Theater J in a gut-wrenching production by Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, and it captures in equal measure the fears and heartache within opposing camps.
Gaon’s play drew initial protests in its 2008 premiere at Cameri, but has attracted diverse and appreciative audiences even amid the march of Jewish settlements into disputed territory. It is presented here as the anchor production of Theater J’s Voices from a Changing Middle East festival with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and others.
Performed in Hebrew and Arabic with English surtitles, “Haifa” is an intensely personal parable about the mutual struggle of two couples for a secure home. (Gaon’s adaptation was revised slightly from the original for Israeli auds.)
Its story begins in 1948, when a young Palestinian couple is forced to abandon their house at the start of the Arab-Israeli war, regrettably leaving behind their sleeping baby. They are quickly replaced by a Jewish couple, two Holocaust survivors from Poland, who are told they may keep the house only if they agree to raise the child.
The simple plot climaxes 19 years later when the Palestinian duo (Surheil Haddad and Raida Adon) return to learn the fate of their son (Erez Kahana). They discover he is a proud and defiant member of the Israeli army, as well as the pride of his devoted stepmother, played with guarded sensitivity by Rozina Kambos. They are spurned by him during an emotional scene.
Director Sinai Peter’s perceptive staging emphasizes the play’s many emotional peaks, especially the heartfelt detente reached by the two women, while also highlighting non-linear moments that help make this play so compelling. Under his stewardship, “Haifa” showcases live theater’s unique ability to dissect and articulate explosive subjects like this one while filtering out the deafening rhetoric that so often prevails.