Billed as a mystery, Mosaic Theater’s American premiere of “The Return” is more than a whodunit. In fact, even as it wrestles with guilt of its two nameless characters — Him and Her — there’s far more going on than solving a crime. Scenic designer Colin Bill set up an us-versus-them or Her-versus-Him dynamic as the audience faces one another seated on two sides of a long driveway in a suburban Tel Aviv auto repair shop. The two protagonists face and face off against each other from two ends of the asphalt, on one side a corrugated metal door, on the other foreboding prison-like bars.
The 90-minute two-character play by Palestinian-American writer and actor Hanna Eady and Seattle-based Edward Mast is an installment in Mosaic Theater’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, intended to amplify often unheard voices amid the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Running through July 2, “The Return” wrestles with identity, individuality and the overriding powers of the state in a nuanced production that is both searing for its insurmountable problems, and provocative for its unvarnished look at how a society treats an “other.”
Washington-area audiences may recall Eady from his performance in Jewish-Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” which dealt boldly and baldly with the disputed history of a 1948 massacre of Arabs by Jews during Israel’s War of Independence.
The controversy became so heated that the full production at Theater J was scaled back to a workshop and the ongoing disputes about the play and its veracity ultimately led to then-Theater J director Ari Roth’s firing.
Shortly after, in late 2014, he founded Mosaic Theater, a company that allows him more latitude to deal with incendiary issues, from the violent history in South Africa to Israel’s occupation of Arab territories to violence on inner city streets.
“The Return” begins as a woman enters the auto repair shops, says “Shalom,” then proceeds to badger the technician. He remains polite, calling her ma’am, and suggesting that perhaps she should return after the Sabbath, when the owner and others would be available. But she persists. He’s an “other”, an Arab, and initially it appears as if she can run roughshod over him with insinuations, nosy questions and accusations. She insists that he must know her. Then she suggests that his Palestinian identity makes him suspect: “You mean they let you work on army jeeps?” If nothing else, it marks him.
The supposed mystery — who are these two people, did they ever meet, and why is she so implacable in her relentless questions? — like a Rubik’s Cube, gets revealed in the play’s turns, twists and reconfigurations as this Friday afternoon meeting continues on subsequent weeks.
The female protagonist, Her, is persistent and unrelenting in delving deeper into this supposed stranger’s past.
Eventually, it becomes clear that a sexual assault occurred. Or, perhaps, it was consensual?
Each side has a different narrative to relate, a different way of viewing and re-telling their histories. And the question arises: Would it have been different if their national and personal narratives were different?
As Her, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan enters like a gale force wind, all bluster, haranguing her victim, Him, Ahmad Kamal, who tries mightily to remain obsequious to his interrogator’s accusations. They spar at each other from two sides of a landing-strip like driveway in the unflattering, utilitarian light, traffic sounds and noise from the auto workshop marking the gritty, working-class location.
Director John Vreeke allows both characters to discover and reveal deep hurts, and Her, especially, digs in like a child picking at a scab until it bleeds. Her opponent simmers at her incessant queries until he explodes. She’s gone too far, there’s no turning back.
Then she pushes further. “The Return” is a play about two individuals and two peoples — one of privilege and one oppressed. The Her character has taken upon herself the mantel of white guilt. She naively and erroneously believes she can make a difference. Her need to assuage privilege leads down a destructive path, one where there is no turning back.
Playwrights Eady and Mast portray the larger Israeli establishment as an enemy of the Palestinian people, and from descriptions from the character Him, it sounds like it hews very closely to a totalitarian regime. They also choose to unsparingly show the inadequacy of good intentions in the face of the larger political conflict. Both points of view will leave many — particularly Israel supporting — audiences discomfited.
Yet for those who leave “The Return” stating that it could never happen in Israel, that it’s a fiction, take note: Eady and Mast based the premise of the play on a 2010 case of an Arab Israeli who was charged and found guilty of rape for not disclosing his Palestinian identity to a Jewish woman.
Of course, “The Return” is fiction, the characters invented, but as the narrative that unspools, the “mystery” reveals itself: a man who has lost his identity and can’t tell his story and a naïve woman who seeks atonement for sins that are perhaps unforgivable, both her own and her nation’s.
“The Return,” by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, through July 2, Mosaic Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St. NE, Washington. Tickets: $60-$40. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or visit mosaictheater.org/tickets.