Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pangs of the Messiah, Mandel Jewish Community Center

(Charles Kartali as Shmuel and Jean Zarzour as Amalia)

You don’t have to be steeped in the politics of the West Bank or the passion of the religious Zionists who call it home in order to understand and appreciate Pangs of the Messiah. But, as they say, it couldn’t hurt.

Placed just slightly in the future, this challenging work by playwright Motti Lerner (an activist in the Israeli peace movement) explores the human toll imposed by political and religious struggles. Although very talky and at times unnecessarily intricate, Lerner crafts many impressive scenes. And a stellar cast under the direction of Scott Plate delivers a powerful evening of theater.

Set in the West Bank home of Rabbi Shmuel Berger, the play pits him and his Orthodox family against his own government, which is on the brink of signing a U.S.-sponsored treaty that will destroy their patch of homeland in trade for peace with a recognized Palestine. If this sounds a bit close to possible reality, you’d be right, and that gives this production added heft.

But what stands out most are the characters Lerner fashions, and how they are brought to life in this production. Shmuel and his wife Amalia welcome home their grown son Avner and his wife Tirtzah from a trip to America. That’s where Avner and Tirtzah failed to sway the administration or the U.N. to help secure the West Bank for Jewish settlers.

Once they’re back home, tensions escalate quickly, and not just on the political front. Avner and Tirtzah have been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, and that undercurrent roils the waters as Avner becomes progressively more militant—even abandoning his suit and tie for an Uzi.

The Bergers have two other children including Chava (Amy Pawlukiewicz), a pregnant mother who is trying to keep track of her loose-cannon husband Benny (Ryan Jagru), and a younger mentally handicapped son, Nadav, who is constructing a house in the area.

Events ratchet up, expressed in brief newscasts that interrupt the family dynamics from time to time, along with visits from family friend and political player Menachem (Neal Poole). Thus, the stress fractures of the family—and symbolically of Israel itself—are shown in stark relief.

Charles Kartali is strong and compassionate as Shmuel, and he makes his political stand understandable without resorting to invective. In the role of his wife Amalia, Jean Zarzour is equally powerful as his main support and loving companion. Although registering as perhaps a bit old for the part, Mark Mayo handles his duties as Avner with quiet purposefulness. His scenes (both loving and contentious) with his wife, played with sharp intensity by Karen Sabo, are genuine.

One of the best moments, however, involves Shmuel and Nadav as they discuss, in their way, the tensions surrounding the family. Ethan Rosenfeld is captivating as the challenged Nadav, displaying childlike eagerness as well as a shallow grasp of more complicated facts. Even though it’s hard to picture this Nadav building a house and managing an assistant, as the script claims, his simple innocence provides a profound sounding board for the world-shattering events taking place.

Even though the title Pangs of the Messiah has the ring of a religious screed, it is much more about the human price that is paid when zealotry and compromise clash. And that is a lesson we all need to learn.

Note: Sadly, this is the last theatrical production to be sponsored by the JCC. And once again, the theater herd in Cleveland is thinned, to the detriment of everyone. Shiva starts July 2.

Pangs of the Messiah
Through July 1, presented by the Mandel
Jewish Community Center, at the Brooks
Theatre, the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 866-546-1358

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