Full houses, with some people who, like me, had to see the World Premier of Return to Haifa more than once speak volumes. Positive word-of-mouth fills theaters. Rave reviews and a Jeff Recommendation reach a still larger population. Hopefully, this review will reach you. Don't miss this extraordinary play. You still have a chance to see, feel, experience it. An extraordinary story, a fine production, its haunting message will linger with you long after your leave the theater.
As the play opens, a sweet Palestinian couple, Safiyeh ( Diana Simonzadeh) and Ishmail ( Anish Jethalani), is contemplating their new family and reveling in their fine home and its lovely view of the sea. It’s so peaceful and filled with promise. We are buoyed up by their plans for the future. But their son is born during the Six-day War and Safiyeh and Ishmail lose everything in the process.
As they are driven from their home with freshly planted roses ( Tom Burch’s set is very nicely done), their child is left behind.
Enter Jacob ( Daniel Cantor) and Sarah ( Saren Nofs-Snyder), recently freed from a Nazi concentration camp, who have been given the house and, to their surprise, the baby boy with it.
As we are horrified to learn later, like Safiyeh, Sarah, has brutally lost her son in the concentration camp.
The traumatized Sarah is both drawn to the child and scarred by the horrors of the camp. Even her savior, an American soldier, adds to her degradation when he vomits at the sight of her “like we weren’t even human,” says Sarah. Nofs-Snyder maintains an exhausting level of tension almost to the end.
Then, 20 years later, while making apricot preserves from the tree planted by Safiyeh and Ishmail when she hears the inevitable knock on the door.
Of course, everyone is transformed. Without any noticeable makeup or costume changes, Safiyeh and Ishmail have been dramatically aged by bitterness and victimization. Their optimistic outlook and almost newlywed relationship is now strained to the breaking point.
And then there’s their first-born son, now named Moishe ( Miguel Cohen), now an Israeli Soldier. The painful, conflicted recognition, realization and, finally rejection of his birth parents is poignant but predictable, painful but profound.
The powerful performances and outstanding supporting stagecraft make it unforgettable. It's more than an evening of theater, it's a journey to a place in your heart you seldom visit.
About the Artists
Director Jason Southerland is an award-winning director and producer who joined Next Theatre Company in December 2008 after a decade as the founding Artistic Director of Boston Theatre Works. He directed the Chicagoland premiere of boom in September 2009 as well as a reading of another play by M.E.H. Lewis at Chicago Dramatists.
Playwright M.E.H. Lewis previously collaborated with Next Theatre on the Next Communities Outreach Program in 2008. For that project, she wrote Secret Language, a play surrounding issues of race in Evanston and Rogers Park based on discussions and conversations with community members.
Ms. Lewis is a two-time Illinois Arts Council Fellow whose plays have been produced at theaters around the world, including The New Theatre in Melbourne, Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles and Cherry Lane Theatre in New York.
Stage Left’s critically acclaimed production of Ms. Lewis’s play Fellow Travellers won a Joseph Jefferson award for best new work, and their production of Burying the Bones was nominated for three Jeff Awards. Infusion Theatre’s production of Creole was nominated for five Black Theatre Awards.
Ms. Lewis has won the Julie Harris Award, the PEN Transatlantic Award, the Dayton Playhouse Outstanding Playwright Award and a Tremain Fellowship. She is an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre and Infamous Commonwealth Theatre, a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, a founding member of the Stone Soup Collective, and a member of the Dramatists Guild.
Her play Here Where It’s Safe is currently premiering at Stage Left Theatre in Wrigleyville.
About Next Theatre
Now in its 29th year, Next Theatre Company continues to thrill audiences with its risky brand of socially provocative, artistically adventurous work. A winner of over 30 Joseph Jefferson Awards – including an unprecedented string of Best Ensemble Awards for four years running – the Next has become a destination for artists and audiences who share the belief that theater can promote awareness and provoke change with more power than any other medium of expression.
Next Theatre is located inside the Noyes Cultural Arts Center at Noyes and Ridge in Evanston, next to the Noyes Street stop on the Evanston "el" (Purple Line). Free parking is available in the lot adjacent to the theatre and the Evanston Civic Center.
Noyes Cultural Arts Center
927 Noyes Street
Evanston, IL 60201
Box Office: 847-475-1875 x2, Tickets online at www.NextTheatre.org
Run Time: approximately 2hours 20minutes with one intermission
Tickets: $25 - $40. Discounts are offered to groups, attendees 25 years and younger, and full-time students.
The theater is wheelchair accessible and climate-controlled.
Photos: Next Theatre