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Theater Review: “Apples From the Desert” at Theater J

The first production in the theater’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival takes on the age-old conflict of trying to break from your upbringing.

Sarah Marshall, Michael Tolaydo, and Jennifer Mendenhall in Apples From the Desert. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

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

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

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

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