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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Illinois is trying to cut arts funding by 75% – act now to prevent this from happening!!

Hey gang – I just received this very urgent e-mail:

 

State funding for the Illinois Arts Council will drop to $6.4 million, an unconscionable 75 percent cut from FY2009, unless the General Assembly acts to pass a responsible budget.  Per capita state spending for the arts in Illinois will plummet from approximately $1.17 per person to a near national low of $.49 per capita.
We must act now to send a powerful message to our elected officials and legislative leaders. There is less than a month before the new fiscal year begins and these devastating cuts take effect.  Here’s what we need you to do:

  • Thank legislators who showed leadership by supporting full funding for the arts and encourage them to work with their colleagues to pass a responsible budget
  • Urge other lawmakers to step up and negotiate a comprehensive, responsible budget that protects our investment in the arts

We’ve made it easy for you to take action.  Just enter your address and the appropriate message will appear.  Thoughtful, customized communications are more effective than form emails and petitions.  Please take a moment to personalize your message by sharing what the arts mean to you and your community.
When the legislative session came to a close on May 31, lawmakers failed to pass a responsible budget that addresses Illinois’ multibillion dollar deficit.  Instead they passed a bare bones budget that makes catastrophic cuts to the arts as well as K-12 and higher education, childcare, college scholarships, health care, public safety, transportation, and local government.
This "doomsday" scenario would decimate the arts infrastructure in Illinois and put artists and cultural organizations at extreme risk.
Act now and urge your elected officials to protect the arts by passing a responsible state budget.

Many thanks for all you do,
Ra Joy's Signature
Ra Joy
Executive Director
Illinois Arts Alliance
P.S.  Please forward this action alert to other arts professionals and supporters in Illinois.