The first production in this year's "Voices from the Middle East Festival," a staple in the Theater J theatre season, is Israeli Savyon Liebrecht's Apples from the Desert, translated into English by Shir Freibach. First produced in Tel Aviv, this family drama offers little that we have not seen before. A treatment of issues that make most sociologists giddy - the role of family, gender, and religious-ethnic identity in shaping one's behavior and relationships - is certainly relevant to modern day audiences, but the question remains whether this particular play contributes in a substantial way to the important and ongoing discussion of them. Nonetheless, this Johanna Gruenhut-directed production offers audience members a master class in acting enhanced by some excellent production values.
Liebrecht introduces us to the Sephardic and Orthodox Abarbanel family. Reuven (Michael Tolaydo) and Victoria (Jennifer Mendenhall) have one 18-year old daughter, Rivka (Blair Bowers), who has been unhappy since she was a young teen about how her father controls her life as her mother remains quiet about his actions and, well, pretty much everything else. Victoria learns from her unmarried sister, Sarah (Sarah Marshall), that Rivka has been sneaking around with a secular Ashkenazi boy (Dooby, played by Brandon McCoy) using the excuse that she's working at a local school as cover. Rivka wishes to join the National Service and, after being deterred once by her controlling and traditional father who simply wants to marry her off, she leaves the family home in Jerusalem to join her boyfriend Dooby on his kibbutz in the desert. When family members go to retrieve her and bring her back under her father's rule, things quickly escalate. The question remains whether the family will remain as it is - with Reuven tightly holding on to his traditional gender, ethnic, and religious-based attitudes - or whether Rivka's decision to break free of her father's chains will serve as a catalyst for change in the family.
The characters in the play are fairly archetypical. We have the controlling father, the fearful and subservient mother, an unhappy teenager seeking to spread her wings, and two free spirits (Dooby and Sarah). Although this particular story centers on a very tradition-oriented family in Israel, it's likely one could replicate the same story - albeit with a few modifications - in many Muslim countries or in some sub-groups within the United States' Christian population (for example, within the Quiverfull movement and/or in some extremely conservative independent, fundamentalist Christian churches). Therein lies part of the problem. We don't learn anything new about this unfortunate situation in Savyon's script - particularly in Act 1. Once we know what Rivka's father is like and what Rivka's goals are - and how they're in fundamental opposition to her father's -, we pretty much know how the story will go and one or two ways it might generally end. Further, although the final few moments of the play are slightly surprising here (even if the overall ending isn't), they come far too quickly and end much too abruptly for them to make a fundamental point about the set of issues being explored. Perhaps with richer characterization of the father, mother, daughter and boyfriend, I would have felt differently.
Despite my fundamental misgivings about the play's oversimplification of a complex set of issues, I would like to stress that Theater J's production is quite brilliant. Much of that success is due to the fine direction and acting. Mendenhall is a standout for her layered performance as is Marshall for her ability to tread the fine line between comedy and drama. Mendenhall's character is the most richly drawn one in the play, but even so it must be stressed that she wholly takes on every aspect of her character - both verbally and non-verbally - in a way that's quite incredible to watch. Thanks to her nuanced take on a woman who may seem lifeless and weak, but has an incredible amount of inner-strength, the character's journey seems to make much more sense. Marshall is the quintessential free spirit as Rivka's slightly eccentric aunt. She avoids making her a cartoon (a particularly important choice in the scenes where she goes to visit Rivka in the desert) and brings a great degree of humanity to the role. As the patriarch, Tolaydo is appropriately gruff and authoritarian when he needs to be without going too overboard. Bowers and McCoy also appropriately capture the youthful spirits of both of their characters fighting to chart their own path in the 'clean slate' of the desert.