Closing out its second season, “The Return,” the Mosaic Theater Company’s powerful commentary on Palestinian-Israeli relations, is both cautionary and a tale of two divergent narratives playing out through the story of two former lovers — one Arab and the other Israeli.
The last offering of the company’s “2017 Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival: Marking 50 Years of the Occupation” reveals the tragedy meted on the Palestinian people when Israel was created, literally evicting the former inhabitants of the land and relegating them to a life under the onus of harshly restrictive Israeli control.
Told through the reunion of Talia (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), a Jewish woman who has spent nearly the past decade in America, and Saber (Ahmad Kamal), a Palestinian mechanic working in the seaside town of Herzliya, we learn of a union that tested the laws of the land, ending in the incarceration of Saber because of the affair. He has since changed his name to Yacov and conformed to the boundaries set as a condition of his release.
As the dialogue unfolds, the gripping loss that both have suffered comes to light. 13 years earlier, they were lovers although Saber was passing himself off as a Jew, calling himself Avi. Their affair comes to a costly halt when Talia turns him in — it was illegal for a Jewish woman to be involved with a Palestinian man, and ultimately, Saber is jailed only to be released to a life under the complete adherence to oppressive restrictions in order to remain free.
With a case of survivor’s guilt, and nostalgia about their short-lived intimacy, Talia returns to try to appease for her earlier actions. Saber finally cracks, recalling his life after he was turned in and the toll it took on him; the Israeli attempts to erase his identity and his history.
The cautionary tale ensues when, to Saber’s chagrin, Talia has once again used her power as a member of the privileged class, Israeli Jews, to encroach on Saber’s freedom under the guise of good intentions and unrealistic fantasies.
Written by Palestinian performer/playwright Hanna Eady and Seattle-based playwright Edward Mast, “The Return” relies on minimalist inferences to enhance the intense interaction between the two characters.
The stark stage has only three props; a caged wall, representing the run down mechanic’s shop where the entire play takes place, a bench and a table with a lone telephone. Those pieces are pivotal in the plot, as the caged wall is a constant reminder of Saber’s jail time, and the telephone the means which he reports his activities trying to keep under the radar. The bench becomes the only platform that Talia and Saber can be together on the same level.
The tragedy of Talia’s misdirected actions are underscored by the lighting (by Colin Bills, who also designed the set) and sound (by Sarah O’Halloran), emphasizing the unseen presence of helicopters and flashing lights, as if the ill-fated couple was under constant surveillance.
“Stories don’t become global because they’re generic,” said director John Vreeke. “The global happens because of the specific. And so the question for us: is specificity of geography a necessary asset or hindrance in making the universal love and betrayal story relevant to us as Americans? We have the opportunity to turn this back on our D.C. audience: How do we create a dynamic through the setting, and the experience of the performance space in making the audience implicated, uncomfortable, perhaps even forcing them to take sides?”
In its U.S. premiere, “The Return” plays at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through July 2. A series of post-show discussions are scheduled, including “Longing to Return” on June 22 with the members of the cast, “Questioning Good Intentions” on June 25 with author and storyteller Noa Baum and cast members, and “Working and Playing Across Barriers” with academics representing Israeli and Arab perspectives. Visit www.mosaictheater.org for tickets and showtimes.