REVIEW: Return to Haifa (Next Theatre)

Accomplished design team elevates poignant story

 

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Evanston’s Next Theatre presents:

Return to Haifa

by M.E.H. Lewis
directed by
Jason Southerland
through March 7th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

Return to Haifa is a smart and moving new play that follows two couples, one Jewish and one Palestinian during the ugly formation of the Jewish state. M.E.H. Lewis, a Chicago playwright, has created a nicely structured play, balancing the two couples against each other in a simple and effective way. She is credited in director’s note as being “famous as a playwright who does research worthy of a PhD dissertation,” and that is evident in her work – though, at times, it feels too academic.

ReturnToHaifa21 The Jewish & Palestinian husbands (nicely played by Daniel Cantor & Anish Jethmalani , respectively) are named Jacob & Ishmail for the estranged decedents of Abram who fathered Judaism and Islam. Playwright Lewis does not allow Ishmail a single scene in the first act where he does not mention a goat: “He will be so strong he will be able to kick a goat over the ocean” or “He can’t even milk a goat without knocking the bucket over three times.” Do you get it? Palestinians used a lot of goats in the 1940’s. This kind of writing can feel a little bit cold, especially during the first act, where large chunks feel like historical exposition. By the second act, however, all of this research comes together; creating a tension and frustration in the dialogue that would not be possible without the sometimes-alienating moments in Act One.

It’s the production’s women that make the play: Diana Simonzadeh as Safiyeh does some of the best on stage aging I have ever seen, both physically and emotionally. She goes from a playful, happy young mother to a wise, angry, regretful old woman without ever losing a bit of integrity or honesty. Her counter part, Saren Nofs-Snyder, gives a truly heartbreaking performance as Sarah, the holocaust survivor.

The over-arching themes of Return to Haifa deal with one’s possessions and where you call home. The house that these women both call home at different points of the play is always the most prominent thing on stage, and it’s well designed by Tom Burich. The walls are made of gauzy scrim, giving the inside of the house a nostalgic, dream-like and unattainable feel.

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Whenever Jared Moore is involved in lighting design, he seemingly becomes one of the play’s leading roles, as he comments on and advances the story on stage. He is so intuitive and artful about his work. The house is lit mostly in warm ambers, making it look inviting and safe, until it isn’t, and the stage becomes washed out with a nauseous grey blue that actually looks like death.

Return to Haifa is a good show, and a good choice for Next Theatre, whose shows often tend to be more traditional. Return to Haifa is not a challenging play, even though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenging topic. It examines horrible things without any true horror. The result is a nice and moving drama, which focuses more on the emotional than the political.

Rating: ★★★

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JeffAwardLogo 

View (2010-02) Return to Haifa - Next Theatre

Playwright M.E.H. Lewis previously collaborated with Next Theatre on the Next Communities outreach program in 2008. For that project, she wrote Secret Language, a play surrounding issues of race in Evanston and Rogers Park based on discussions and conversations with community members. She is the author of Burying the Bones (Jeff nominee) and Fellow Travelers (Jeff Award winner for Best New Work). Ms. Lewis is a two-time Illinois Arts Council Fellow, and winner of the Julie Harris Competition, the Dayton Playhouse Competition, the Tremain Fellowship, and the PEN Trans-Atlantic Award. In addition to Return to Haifa, her most recent work includes Here Where It’s Safe, which will appear this winter at Stage Left Theatre, Musica Mundana, workshopped with InFusion Theatre, and Small World, commissioned by Solano Theatre. She is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, a founding member of the Stone Soup Collective, an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre and Infamous Commonwealth, and a member of the Dramatists Guild.

The cast of Return to Haifa

Daniel Cantor

 

Anish Jethmalani

 

 Miguel Cohen

 

Saren Nofs-Snyder

 

 Todd Garcia

 

Diana Simonzadeh

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