Review: ‘Return to Haifa’ @ Next Theatre



Couples torn apart by conflict in “Return to Haifa”

When I arrived at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center to review this show, there was a mixup with my press tickets — is in: they didn’t have them. The box office lady quickly rectified the situation, but apologized, noting the seats wouldn’t be the best. Turn out, it was a sold out show — on a Sunday afternoon. So, my seats were located in the overflow row at the back of the house, behind a row of freakishly tall people.

In spite of the less-than-ideal view, I was completely riveted from beginning to end. Next Theatre has produced a gripping production that divides audiences and critics, and provides for stimulating post-show conversation. It’s no wonder the house was packed.

I’m not going to pretend I understand all the dynamics that form the story’s backdrop (politics and history were my worst subjects). So, rather than butchering the synopsis and unintentionally rearranging political history, I will turn to the press notes:

Israel, 1948: during the violent birth pains of the State of Israel, a young Palestinian couple flee their home in Haifa amidst the fighting. The house is given to a Jewish couple, refugees from the detention camps of Eastern Europe. Twenty years later, days after the Six Day War, the Palestinian couple, now refugees themselves, return to see the house and everything else they left behind.

I know some critics believe the play, which was adapted from Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella by Evanston-based playwright M.E.H. Lewis, fails at providing a balanced perspective on the subject matter. However, is this journalism or art? Why can’t a play have a biased view?

Regardless, and aside from all this, what resonated for me was the concept of war told from the perspective of its victims. As humans, we need a sense of home and place. To belong to something. To have pride in ownership and the ability to plant roots. However, what if not only our physical home is suddenly overtaken, but our land, our heritage and our identities are erased as well? What then?

Both couples, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Daniel Cantor as the Jewish couple, and Anish Jethmalani and Diana Simonzadeh as the Palestinians, have experienced loss and alienation as result of war. But they each have carried on from their shattered pasts, with grief and guilt just a memory away. And when the Palestinian couple ventures back two decades later to the house they were forced to leave in Haifa to find a Jewish couple has occupied it, the age-old arguments of rights of ownership and family ties come into focus. These are universal emotions, uninfluenced by political perspectives.

Yes, the plays becomes didactic at times, with lines that sound more like ideological arguments than actual dialogue. But very fine performances from Cantor, Jethmalani, Simonzadeh and especially Nofs-Snyder draw you in completely.

In short: Visit Next Theatre for a first-rate production of a story that deserves telling — balanced or not.

“Return to Haifa” plays through March 7, 2010 at Next Theatre Company, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, Ill. For more information, visit nexttheatre.org.

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