In Israeli Stage’s ‘The Return,’ an encounter resounding with echoes from the past
After an impressive nine-year run powered by indefatigable founder and artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon, Israeli Stage is ringing down the curtain with “The Return.’’
It’s a fitting finale. Cowritten by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, “The Return’’ is a taut, politically charged two-hander about a fraught encounter between a Palestinian man (Nael Nacer) and an Israeli woman (Philana Mia) in the front office of an auto repair garage located in Herzliya, Israel.
As their painful shared history emerges bit by bit, “The Return’’ underscores the ways that simple one-on-one human relationships are often the principal casualties of unending conflict, while raising wider questions about what such conflicts can do to a nation’s soul. Broadly speaking, those have been among the themes that have defined Israeli Stage productions since Ben-Aharon, then just 20, launched the company in November 2010.
Over the ensuing years, Israeli Stage presented five full productions of works that focused on Israeli culture and politics, all directed by Ben-Aharon (“Ulysses on Bottles,’’ “Oh God,’’ “Days of Atonement,’’ “The Last Act,’’ and “The Return’’), as well as more than two dozen staged readings.
As with David J. Miller’s steadfast leadership of Zeitgeist Stage Company, which recently closed its doors after nearly 20 years, Ben-Aharon’s stewardship of Israeli Stage demonstrated the outsize impact a leader of a small theater company can have if he is driven by a passionate sense of mission. Some of Boston’s most high-profile actors were drawn to that mission; among those who performed with Israeli Stage were the late Thomas Derrah, Melinda Lopez, Karen MacDonald, Will Lyman, Obehi Janice, Will LeBow, Maureen Keiller, Remo Airaldi, Nancy E. Carroll, and Ken Cheeseman.
In “The Return,’’ Nacer and Mia deliver performances worthy of that illustrious roster. Nacer again demonstrates his mastery at playing men stretched tight by circumstance, at imparting weight and meaning to moments of stillness, and, when the need arises, at going from zero to 60, dramatically speaking. For her part, Mia skillfully works through the layers of a character who starts out aggressively in charge but ends up nearly broken, forced to live with the knowledge that she was betrayed not just by her country but by herself.
When the woman played by Mia first shows up in his garage, Nacer’s mechanic stiffens into a guarded, even rigid, formality. It becomes quickly apparent that she’s not there just to have work done on her car. Their subsequent conversation is part interrogation, part game of cat-and-mouse.
She quizzes him, expressing surprise that “they let you work on those military vehicles,’’ informing him that she has been out of the country for “quite a while,’’ demanding to know whether his name is really Yakov, as he claims, or Avi, as she insists it is. “It’s been 13 years and you have some new name,’’ she tells him. “I don’t know if that’s real or a joke. Did they make you a new name?’’ He professes bafflement and keeps offering to show her his identification card; his struggle to contain himself is palpable.
Ben-Aharon sustains an atmosphere of tension and suspense as subsequent events unfold, maintaining a tight focus on “The Return’s’’ two tormented people while also evoking the context of checkpoints and scanners and security cameras within which they are trying to (re)connect. The blank surfaces and sharp geometric planes of Cristina Todesco’s bone-white set emphasize the spatial relationship between them and suggest that they are trapped, as if the world is closing in on them (which it indeed proves to be). The stage is suffused in red light (the lighting design is by Jeff Adelberg) during scenic transitions, and a tonal hum created by sound designer David Wilson adds resonant aural punctuation to a crucial scene.
Even after the truth about the past relationship between the Palestinian and the Israeli comes out, their story isn’t over. They both have to cope with further consequences. History isn’t done with them yet.
Play by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage. At Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 19. Tickets $25, 617-266-0800, www.israelistage.com