Even if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, the fact is that it does, inevitably, fall, separating one generation from the next. In the Abarbanel family of Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht’s Apples From the Desert, that falling apple is daughter Rivka (Blair Bowers), a Sephardic religious teen longing for a different life than the strict tradition of her upbringing. It’s a familiar tale, but that universality is what makes Theater J’s latest production so affecting.
Set in Jerusalem in the early 1980s, the story—winner of Israel’s Best Play Award in 2006 and making its professional American debut—follows the tense struggle between strong-willed Rivka and her Orthodox parents, the doting and submissive Victoria (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Reuven (Michael Tolaydo), a mean and intimidating patriarch who rules his household with an iron fist. When Rivka meets secular kibbutznik Dooby (Brandon McCoy), her dreams of breaking free turn to actions, and the family’s lifestyle and loyalties are put to the test, along with their beliefs about what constitutes a fulfilling life.
We’ve all seen this battle before—from Romeo and Juliet to My Big, Fat Greek Wedding to our own lives, parents have long balked at the idea that their progeny could have the audacity to challenge the way things are, often for a mate. The story could be set anywhere. But the fact that Liebrecht puts her characters in Jerusalem and the kibbutzes of the Negev desert, regions that in recent years have been riddled with gunfire and political conflict, gives the theme of two warring factions finding peace and compromise its own personal heft.
The casting here is nearly impeccable. Bowers shines as Rivka, alight with the youthful glow of optimism and empowerment. As laid-back Dooby, McCoy has an artful grasp on the “modern man” combination of sensitivity and strength that makes his character so attractive to Rivka. Mendenhall and Tolaydo are tasked with perhaps the most complex roles, and they each tap a raw realism and vulnerability in their performances: Mendenhall layers a docile exterior with a suppressed inner fire that burns brighter and brighter as the play progresses, while Tolaydo, a fearsome presence throughout most of the show, is able to display vulnerability and depth without forfeiting his character’s stubborn nature. Rounding out the able group of actors is the balancing force of Theater J Associate Artist in Residence (along with Tolaydo) Sarah Marshall. As Victoria’s carefree sister Sarah, Marshall infuses the drama with organic sweetness and the loving humor that blossoms within an intimate family dynamic.
Sets and staging remain relatively stark. Director Johanna Gruenhut, a Baltimore-based director and Israel scholar, keeps the play relationship-focused and character-driven. And it pays off. The story isn’t bogged down with symbolic tangents. Its weight comes from the underlying complexities of everyday choices and interactions. It’s hard not to relate to these plotlines, whether it’s coming to terms with a child’s independence or seeking to right your parents’ wrongs in your own relationships, a lesson in understanding and empathy is always beneficial. In fact, bringing your parents or grown children to this production could raise some important talking points. Like all parents, Victoria and Reuven can’t expect to only teach their children; they must be open to learning from them, too. And the sentiment, as the play proves, works both ways.
It may not be shaking the most original of trees, but Apples wisely incorporates the most important ones. After all, it takes both strong roots and an optimal growing environment to produce the sweetest fruit.
Apples from the Desert, the first production in Theater J’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, will run through January 6. Running time is about one hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets (starting at $35) are available at theaterj.org.