Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sabra is also the name of a Palestinian refugee camp outside of Beirut, which (along with a camp called Shatila) was the site of a massacre by Phalangist forces supported by Israel during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sabra Falling) by playwright Ismail Khalidi, now being given a world premiere staging by Pangea World Theater, is set in that refugee camp, specifically in the home of a Palestinian family inescapably caught up in the violence.
The elder of their sons, a poet, was arrested and presumably killed for writings deemed to be seditious. His fiancée, an independent young woman named Dalia, moved in with his family. She is a medic caring for Palestinian soldiers. The younger son Hani is determined to avenge his brother's death, and joins the PLO forces. Their father Sofyan is a playwright who has seen theaters destroyed, his actors killed or fled, and spends day and night in his pajamas, coping poorly with the descent of the civilized world he knew. Leena, Sofyan's wife and former actress in his plays, maintains strength for all of them scraping together meals and trying to maintain a home.
As the play opens, an attack has blasted a hole in the family's roof. Through this hole falls an Israeli pilot, stunned but not seriously injured. Hot-headed Hani wants to shoot the Israeli on the spot, but Leena forbids it. She insists on caring for their captive until his health is restored, will not allow killing in her home, nor allow her family to behave as the invading force has behaved toward them. All of them are struck by the soldier's resemblance to their missing son, and Sofyan believes it is their son, returned as he always believed he would, and gives the soldier their old typewriter to resume writing.
The soldier, confused and uncertain how he arrived there, reveals his own past through fragmented memorieshis mother in Tel Aviv, the girl he left behind, and the fact that he, too, is a writer. He is also a Sabraborn in Israelbut not of Western descent. His family emigrated, under duress, from Iran, which meant that he was subject to discrimination by the more privileged European-descended Jews. He is also haunted by images of an Israeli general, dressed garishly, half clown, half demon, who speaks with a demented Eastern European accent and walks with a palsied goose-step. The general assails the soldier for remaining with the family, egging him on to kill them and return to his unit, just beyond the Sabra camp.
Salah Fatah plays Palestinian music from the back of the stage, providing an atmospheric soundtrack that links this modern era story to a cultural legacy. Over two acts, the story unspools as each character must make choices as to how to face their dilemmas. Hani is certain that this soldier, this fallen Sabra, is nothing but their enemy. But the others see in him their lost son and lover, as he sees in this family his own people, more like him than are many of the Israelis he fights to defend. The premise, the characters response to the fate that is swallowing them, and the familial love that holds them together through the worst of times, are all well developed by playwright Khalidi. He brings them to a precipice and there it ends, leaving us to imagine what will happen in the next moment. Without allowing any spoilers, I can say that what I wish to have happen and what I believe will happen are quite different. The result is a deep sadness, all the more so when realizing that this story set in 1982 is being re-enacted in 2017 in so many parts of the world.
The actors do well at relating the entrenched emotions that guide each of their paths in this journey. Adri Mehra is greatly affecting as the addle-minded Sofyan, reflexively chuckling mid-sentence as if to keep from screaming. As Leena, Adlyn Carreras, always a strong presence, conveys the strength of an unyielding moral compass, and the passion of a mother for her family. Lina Jamoul displays Dalia's fierce determination to stay the course, but reveals the vulnerability of her broken heart as she is drawn in by the soldier's looks. Michael Karadsheh is a believably strident Hani, young enough to see only one side of his march to take arms and become part of the fight. As the pilot, Jawdy Obeid has little to say; for a large part of the play, the soldier simply responds to the questions, concerns, threats and ministrations of others. Obeid does fine work building his character with facial expressions and body bearing. Only Mohammed Yabdri, as the General, is not compelling, though that might have been the result of the character being written as a grotesque burlesque of the war machine, a cartoon when all other persons in the play are achingly real. His Eastern European accent adds to difficulty understanding his lines, especially given the lack of enhancements to the Avalon Theater's acoustics.
The Avalon, home to In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, offers a large playing space where seats have been removed in front of the stage, on which a disheveled, fragmented home, designed by Sadie Ward, is spreads out. A more compact pace might actually intensify the claustrophobic feeling of a refugee camp under siege. However, both the lighting (designed by Mike Grogan) and the sound (design uncredited) provided enhancements with the blaze and roar of war, and the fog of memory taking hold over these characters' lives. The production, overall, is directed by Dipankar Mukherjee with a nod toward the real possibilities that befall this family and their Sabra pilot. That the pilot survives the fall, and that he resembles so closely the elder son, are leaps of fantasy, but everything is presented as if it could happen, and most likely does happen wherever war is bringing havoc to people's lives.
The history of this event, as of the entire Middle East, is terribly complicated, and all sides can make earnest cases for their actions. Sabra Falling is clearly sympathetic to the Palestinians in portraying the pain inflicted on a single family, and it names Israel as the aggressor, particularly by making the Israeli General such a blatant embodiment of evil. It omits the factions within Lebanon that brought about the nation's state of chaos through years of civil war, along with the outside influence of the U.S.S.R and the U.S. In this context, the Palestinian Liberation Organization had de facto control over the region bordering Israel, from which it launched terrorist attacks against Jewish communities. A U.S. brokered truce failed when U.S., French and Italian forces broke their commitments to maintain the peace, a fact that does find its way into the play.
While digging deeper is always wise before forming judgment, Sabra Falling is instructive in shedding light on events, much of them no longer talked about, for which new generationson both sides of the conflictcontinue to pay the price. This play is a thoughtful expression of the error we make seeing those on opposing sides as so different from us, of the harshness of war and displacement, and the challenge faced by those trying to make moral decisions where morality has disappeared. It is an affecting and provocative dramatization of the ironies, follies and futility of dividing ourselves up by nationality, race or religion. Just ask the Sabra, an outsider in his own homeland, who falls into a camp called Sabra where everything seems familiar, what sense these boundaries make.
Sabra Falling continues at the Avalon Theater through October 1, 2017, 1500 Lake Street E., Minneapolis, MN, 55407. Tickets are $18.00; seniors and students, $12.00. For tickets call (612) 822-0015 or go to pangeaworldtheater.org.
Writer: Ismail Khalidi; Director: Dipankar Mukherjee; Set Design: Sadie Ward; Costume Design: Swapna Sengupta Haldar; Lighting Design: Michael Grogan; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Assistant Director: Sir Curtis Kirby III; Stage Manager: Suzanne Cross.
Cast: Adlyn Carreras (Leena/Mira), Lina Jamoul (Dalia/Uli), Michael Karadsheh (Hani), Adri Mehra (Sofyan), Jawdy Obeid (The Pilot), Mohamed Yabori (The General). Music performed by Salah Fatah.