“You don’t understand” is a phrase uttered more than once in “The Return,” a potentially controversial theater piece receiving its New England premiere courtesy of Israeli Stage (at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 19).
Indeed, a many-faceted failure to comprehend is the point of this poignant, incendiary work by Seattle-based Palestinian writer Hanna Eady and his frequent American collaborator, Edward Mast. Brief, cryptic and alive with emotion, the play takes the form of four tense encounters between a Palestinian mechanic alone on Shabbat duty at an Israeli garage and a Jewish woman who shows up seeking not an oil change but redemption — or at least recognition. The mechanic, taut if unerringly polite, insists he does not know her.
Stylistically, the play takes its cues from Kafka and Pinter. Both a mystery and a misguided-love story, the piece only gradually pries open the troubled history and impossible present of the man and woman meeting on seemingly mundane ground. Both of the characters are treated fairly, their pain equally and even eloquently voiced (though the woman’s relentless failure to realize that she is doing harm, however unintentionally, beggars belief). But the play’s politics are less enigmatic than its form.
We are left, right up until the end, with more questions than certainties regarding the characters’ motivations. But this is Israeli Stage’s first outing by a Palestinian writer, and it reflects his experience. The work hinges on an Israeli law that condemns “rape by deception,” and it speaks poignantly to the question of the Palestinians’ “right to return” to lands taken from them when Israel was created in 1948. Doubtless some audience members will regard it as a dramaturgical deck stacked against the privileged Israeli majority and the Jewish government’s fierce, intrusive, arguably oppressive security apparatus.
But whatever your views on the apparently intractable Israeli-Palestinian situation, this production of “The Return” is powerfully affecting. Wisely, artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon helms a staging that resonates as more metaphorical than didactic — or even realistic. There is no “small front office of an auto-repair garage,” as specified in Eady and Mast’s script. Instead, the piece is staged on a stark white, slightly sloping platform designed by Cristina Todesco, its four charged scenes separated by loud, ominous chords against which the white backdrop gleams with vivid color. (The effectively jarring lighting and sound are by Jeff Adelberg and David Wilson, respectively.) And the performances by Nael Nacer and Philana Mia vibrate with tension and yearning.
The roles, designated only as Him and Her (though they give themselves names, in his case more than one), are ambiguous by design. A great deal goes unsaid, especially in the play’s edgy initial scene, but both actors speak volumes through body language and, in Nacer’s case, the nervous deployment of a shammy rag.
The woman, newly returned to her native Israel after eight years in the U.S., at first seems unduly nosy if friendly — and genuinely surprised that an Arab man is allowed to work on Israeli army vehicles. He is contained if courteous — though, as he later affirms, her just walking through the door of his place of business was “like a missile. Like a bomb on somebody’s belt.” But as their interaction heats up, a lot of old guilt and bottled-up anguish get spilled on the garage floor, some of it personal, some of it political, all of it palpable.
Mia’s Her is the guilt-dogged ripper open of old wounds. Nacer’s Him, having long ago been convicted of a crime that left him sentenced him to a lifetime of carefulness, at first hews to a self-negating, government-dictated script he considers necessary to survive in what is enemy territory.
But when the pair’s interaction simultaneously relaxes and explodes, his passion — unleashed by the very label "Palestinian" — is ferocious. In one of the play’s most indelible exchanges, he explains: “It’s not just a word! It’s an attack! It’s a way of believing that this whole country, your whole country, is not real, is not true, not fair, never really here, just a figment, some passing mistake, it’s a way of saying we’ll be back, we’ll always make trouble, you’ll never have peace, never ever, as long as we say that word, even to ourselves.” For Israel to feel safe, he opines, he needs not to exist.
Of course, this is what Israeli Stage has been about: in Ben-Aharon’s words, not stirring up fights but summoning “the courage to listen deeply, to listen not to win, but to empathize” with someone’s point of view, set of experiences, that are not one’s own. To that end, each Israeli Stage performance is followed by what the troupe dubs “Dialogue/Reflection,” a conversation in which artists and audience members share thoughts inspired by the play. Following the performance I attended, one woman remarked that, whereas she found the personal story beautiful, she objected to what she perceived as the Jews being portrayed as “victimizers.”
Last spring Israeli Stage presented a work by Israel’s most lauded playwright, Joshua Sobol, called “The Last Act.” Now the company returns with “The Return,” which, ironically, is to be its last act. After nine years in business, the company is shutting down and Ben-Aharon, 29, is moving on to other cultural/social projects. He and Israeli Stage will be missed, not just as a platform for Israeli playwrights, a starter of fiery conversations, but as an artistic entity whose productions, including this one, were of a high and penetrating order.
Israeli Stage's "The Return" runs at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through May 19.