The overpowering sound of a construction worker’s leaf blower drones on. Then, suddenly, a single haunting voice breaks through that noise in an Israeli melody.
After that opening musical number, Tirzah, the main character and narrator of Theater J’s “Love Sick,” launches into her backstory — how did she get to modern Tel Aviv, and why is she now the crazy lady in the square? Tirzah (Ofra Daniel) talks about her life as a young woman in some traditional, mystical Jerusalem long ago.
“Love Sick,” written and composed by Daniel, runs through Sept. 29 in the newly renovated Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater.
Based on the biblical Song of Songs, “Love Sick” tells Tirzah’s story of suffering in a loveless arranged marriage, and of a secret admirer who sends love poems to her doorstep.
It’s intriguing source material. The ancient poems are sensual in a way that allows their metaphorical imagery to depict a lover’s longing; Daniel uses them as lyrics for her songs:
“Your neck is like the tower of David,/ built in rows of stone;/ on it hang a thousand shields,/ all of them shields of warriors./
Your two breasts are like two fawns,/ twins of a gazelle,/ that graze among the lilies,” says the first letter Tirzah receives.
This play’s strongest suit is its beautiful original music, which the actors perform with fortitude and grace. The instrumentalists are all part of the show: They wear costumes and stand on stage, becoming one with the rest of the cast.
The ensemble playing the women of Jerusalem (Sarah Corey, Sarah Laughland, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Kanysha Williams) is striking — their harmonies blend into a balanced chorus, and the actors are able to embody both the nosiness of the Jewish mothers of Jerusalem and their deep empathy in various situations.
One memorable song, “The Cook Song,” shows the four women circling Tirzah and repeating the lines, “Make your home as happy as your mama did/Enjoy your life but do it as your husband bid.” Tirzah is unhappy with her arranged marriage, and this is the women’s way of encouraging her to go on. The upbeat but harsh melody here highlights the women’s strong belief in their words, yet still points out their outdated message to the modern audience.
Sasha Olinick (The Husband) is a solid player, though his solo song, “The Fish Song,” seems oddly out of place — an attempt to be comedic in a show that from the start feels intense and deep. But Olinick’s performance is deep throughout the rest of the show. At one point, he sings a sad melody that turns into weeping.
Ali Paris (The Lover, musical director) has a sweet, smooth voice. Paris, a Palestinian performer, also plays the Qanun on stage. His ability to sing while playing the 72-string zither seemingly effortlessly is remarkable.
Matt Cole’s choreography is simple, but fits well with the show. Tirzah’s sensual movements in several numbers are graceful but surprising; at times they could be uncomfortable for the audience, but they do depict her desire. The Israeli dance in “Dance for Me” is nice and familiar. The set, which hardly changes through the show, is well constructed, with its tree branches extending over the stage. It’s nothing exciting, but provides a timeless backdrop for the story.
The biggest drawback of the show is how slowly it moves. There is a twist at the end that makes several decisions understandable retrospectively, but during the rest of the show it feels like we just want something to happen already.
Instead, the show focuses mostly on Tirzah’s longing for her lover. Yes, the music is beautiful, but several of the numbers felt repetitive. The lack of physical interaction and dialogue between the characters leaves something to be desired — “Love Sick” feels like a one-woman show with ensemble players.
Daniels’ performance in that one-woman show is exquisite. Her voice and physicality illustrate Tirzah’s yearning — but it would be nice to see the action rather than being told what is happening. It’s frustrating to hear Tirzah say something like, “I ran to meet my lover” without watching it occur. Even in shows with narrators (“Into the Woods,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Pippin”), there is much more interaction between the characters.
Overall, “Love Sick” is a wonderful display of local and Jewish talent, and the music will keep you singing for a few days afterward. It’s worth experiencing the Song of Songs through a timeless love story.
“Love Sick” is playing until Sept. 29. It runs for 90 minutes in one act without intermission. Theater J; 1529 16th St. NW Washington; $52, discounts are available where applicable; for tickets, visit theaterj.org/on-stage/love-sick.