‘The Admission’ at Theater J by John Stoltenberg

As many who follow local theater news know, Theater J’s production of The Admission has been preceded by an offstage drama—a who’s-right/who’s-wrong argument, a what-really-happened/what-really-didn’t-happen controversy that has provoked passions and incited a considerable clash of intellection.  Turns out, the onstage drama of the play itself—the extraordinarily artful disputation playwright Motti Lerner has crafted for his seven indelibly articulate characters—far surpasses that spat in power and insight, and in force and importance.  The Admission is a towering achievement in the tradition of Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and other masters of moral inquiry.

L to R: Pomme Koch, Hanna Eady, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
L to R: Pomme Koch, Hanna Eady, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Directed astutely by Sinai Peter, the play is set in Haifa forty years after a battle that took place in a small town named Tantura. The engrossing story pivots on what really happened there in 1948 when Israeli soldiers killed Arab villagers. The central question of the ensuing disquisition is, ostensibly, Exactly how many were killed? enough to qualify as a “massacre”? The characters in The Admission belong to two neighboring families of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs who are complicatedly connected to one another and to that event. They talk of casualties with the casual precision of statistics-absorbed sportsfans—as if  the ethics of war can be calibrated in corpse counts. Was it only 20? Well, okay then. Or was it 170 as the Red Cross said? That crosses the line. Or was it actually upwards of 200, as the young Israeli history professor named Giora (Danny Gavigan) is alarmed to discover while reading an unpublished dissertation. The question matters personally to Giora—impelling the quest to dig for truth that drives the play—because his father, Avigdor (Michael Tolaydo), led the brigade in that military encounter.

Giora’s mother, Yona (Kimberly Schraf), refuses to believe her husband is other than a war hero and insists that Giora stop scraping at scabs on old wounds. The truth-seeker Giora is undeterred. “Only when we find out what happened there will be able to live here,” he says.

Giora is all the more compelled by the emotionally wrenching eyewitness account he hears from Ibrahim (Hanna Eady), head of the neighboring Arab household: Unarmed civilians, says Ibraham, shot like dogs.

In a father-son confrontation filled with gut-punching pain, Avigdor defends himself saying, “All my life I’ve struggled to atone.”

Gioro thrusts back: “You’ve struggled to deny.”

Whether Lerner fictionalized the particular historical event loosely referenced in this play doesn’t really matter once the characters’ stories take off, because what steadily emerges in this brilliant script is a theme that resounds with humbling universality: If we do not put the past to rest and move on, how can we bear to live with ourselves in the present? Yet if we bury the past, pave over our culpability without owning it and atoning for it, how can we  live lives of moral integrity?

We may claim to, we may hope and long to, but we must first dig up the dirt. Metaphorically Gioro begins doing that in the very first scene. Downstage left on the sleek, simple set designed by Frida Shoham are tiny houses surrounded by sand, which Gioro sifts through his fingers. This miniature, we learn, signifies the land in Tantura where Arab bones lie buried. Avigdor, a wealthy real-estate developer, plans to bulldoze and build houses there. This anguishes Ibrahim, for whom digging up those bones is a callous cultural affront, and it prompts him to disclose Avigdor’s wartime crimes.

A provocative subplot involves Gioro’s knotty love life. Under pressure from his mother and father, Gioro is engaged to marry Neta (Elizabeth Anne Jernigan)—but he is in love with Ibrahim’s daughter, Samya (Leila Buck). That Lerner integrates this romance plot line with the historical-honesty through line is among the play’s smart surprises.

Samya’s brother, Azmi (Pomme Koch), runs a restaurant where Gioro’s family are very welcome guests—not least because Avigdor has been the family’s generous benefactor, including paying for Samya’s education. In Avigdor’s mind, this largesse is his atonement. Conveniently it has has also bought Ibrahim’s acquiescent silence, until now.

As Lerner lets us in on the intriguing interconnections between his characters, he gives each distinctive voice a version of moral authority. The Admission is admittedly an issue play.  But in fact and execution, it is richly textured with a multiplicity of  issues that each of the characters have with one another. The play’s overarching theme is not delivered as a polemic or tract; it is instead  embedded in arresting scenes and embodied in believable, playable people. In this respect The Admission ranks among dramatic-literature classics—and the exceptional ensemble of actors play each perspective and each point pitch perfectly.

Because of the aforementioned offstage drama, The Admission, originally announced as a full production, was repositioned as a lower-budget workshop. Accordingly the various specific settings in the playscript are not rendered realistically; everything happens Our Town–like on a bare stage with a few chairs and a table; meanwhile actors not in a scene can be seen waiting in the wings. There are evocative projections designed by Klyph Stanford, who also designed utilitarian yet effective lighting. Frida Shoham has designed straightforward costumes that are simultaneously appropriate to the characters and the rehearsal-in-progress feel. And in between scenes are simple yet effective music cues composed by Habib Shehedeh Hanna. (My only quibble: Sometimes these cues come in on top of dialogue, which in the barebones, stripped-down aesthetic of the show feels excessive and cinematic.)

Fortuitously, this workshop-style staging absolutely suits the play. It needs no more. This is a work that rewards focused engagement and needs no distracting display. In fact this script might well suffer if loaded down with more scenery and effects. The interplay of ideas is the thing wherein consciences are caught.

L to R: Hanna Eady, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan, Pomme Koch, Kimberly Schraf, and Michael Tolaydo. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
L to R: Hanna Eady, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan, Pomme Koch, Kimberly Schraf, and Michael Tolaydo. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

For anyone who attends theater accompanied by a moral sensorium, The Admission is essential viewing. In substance and significance, The Admission is a theatergoing peak experience.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

The Admission plays through April 6, 2014 at Theater J at the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center -1529 16th Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets,  call (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.


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