Pangs of the Messiah runs through May 10 at Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre
Israeli-born playwright and screenwriter Motti Lerner has been active in the Israeli peace movement for close to four decades. His Pangs of the Messiah has been onstage from Tel Aviv to New York and makes its Midwest premiere at the Silk Road Theatre. Set in 2012, Pangs literally pits one Orthodox-hardliner’s extended family against Israel, the world, and one another. The certain signing of the peace treaty—brokered by the United States, sponsored by Israel, and the fully recognized Palestine—will certainly bring apocalypse to the West Bank settlers. For years they have expanded their communal reach on the West Bank, but at pen’s stroke will see their homes bulldozed, forcing them into nomadic purgatory, having to scatter like refugees in their very homeland.
The head of the family, Shmuel (Bernard Beck) straddles two fences as Rabbi and politician, advising and comforting his flock while negotiating with the Prime Minister and Knesset and rallying community organizers. He’s a very important man, who’s been in “the struggle” since the Six-Day War. Judgment day draws near, though, and his life-accomplishments, his words and actions, will come down to his influence on a political system, a country, and even his fellow West Bank settlers that are ready to move on and embrace the new “peace process”.
Shmuel’s wife Amalia (Susan V. Adler) doggedly dotes on her extended family, including her just-arrived son Avner (Mark Hines) and daughter-in-law Chava (Stacie Green). The couple flees New York when it becomes apparent that Avner’s political efforts to secure the West Bank for the Jewish settlers are hopeless. As with most unexpected visits the couple brings news: Avner’s lobbying of the US government has failed and the couple’s diagnosed infertility has led to a burgeoning marital discord.
Chava is reminded of her struggle to provide the family with “many grandchildren” with the pregnancy of Tirtzah (Dana Black), Avner’s sister, who is six weeks away from delivering her fifth child with her husband Benny (Brent T. Barnes), an activist-turned-terrorist turned-farmer. Benny vanishes for extended periods of time as the family tries to turn back the tide of events set to engulf the West Bank life they’ve built. Youngest son Nadav continues to tenaciously build a new home in close proximity to his parents, unbowed by the loss of his Arab tradesman, run off by threats of violence from protesters, leaving only his dog Herschel behind in the perilous construction of his dream home.
While West Bank protesters march, riot, and finally crescendo in physical violence against Israeli soldiers following orders to keep “peace”, Shmuel goes into religious and political overdrive—organizing protests against the government, engaging the world media, and chasing down Knesset members and a Prime Minister who’ve made a collective decision and moved on. He orders Avner to return to America; to lobby “true friends of Israel” and the President to change their minds on what has already been signed into agreement. Avner cannot honor his father’s wishes—the seams of his marriage to Chava bursting all over the West Bank as she realizes that she can’t continue attempting to bare children with a hardliner willing to replace negotiation and compromise with violence for the sake of political expediency.
Benny continues physical illusiveness with Tirtzah. Fearing that he has gone back to his terrorist ways, she stoically soaks in quiet terror of memories of his last “patriotic act”, which came in the form of a car bombing that killed ten Arab women and children. Benny, unrepentant for his act that caused, in his words, “collateral damage that had to be made”, declares himself a “farmer, simply”, and rejects Shmuel’s pleas to stand by his side with the street protesters so that the world may see the uprising of Israel. As Benny’s disappearances become more frequent, Tirtzah begs him not to turn into his former self. Tirtzah is terrified that as she loses her home to politics, she may permanently lose her husband to a prison cell if he makes a “successful” return to terrorism. Benny is vaguely assuring to his pregnant wife, openly annoyed with Shmuel and Avner, and entrenched in his estrangement with his moderate father Menachem as family members attempt but fail to get into his head on matters political and aggressive.
As the Israeli government begins the removal of settlers, formerly peacekeeping soldiers take to bulldozers and tear down homes scattering settlers countrywide, including Chava, who prepares to leave the danger of Avner and clan for the safety of her parent’s home in Tel Aviv. Amalia faces down “(her) own people” as ersatz-placed bombs injure her and her grade school charges. Nadav finds his dog hit by a truck and then his almost finished home bulldozed to the ground, apparently by Israel soldiers. These individual and collective acts make Shmuel realize that he is not the power broker or the man of great importance that he once was, as his neighbors ignore his “take to streets and fight for our homeland” rally cry. The final blow to his existence comes when the Prime Minister and even his party’s hardliners refuse to take his calls. Amalia finally abandons his politics—too hard-line for her—while his children reject his political stance as being too conciliatory towards the “turncoat” government and Arab settlers.
Pangs of the Messiah has been staged in Israel, Europe, and New York before this current Chicago run. That may be the problem. When watching the writer’s words come to life, you may have to share his point of view to fully understand his message. His characters lean to one-dimension; their humanity never makes its presence known as they perform high acts of cruelty and treason, even amongst one another. Yes, families are complex, and can be made up of the self-absorbed, the self-deluded, and the egotistical—sometimes even spitting out a murderous psychotic or two; but all of those components make for a three-dimensional living legacy that gives an audience member something to relate and hold on to. Relating to one character may be difficult, however, for those audience members familiar with the West Bank war of words and bombs.
What happens on the nine-hour flight from New York and one-day stay in his parents’ home that takes Avner from lobbyist to street hoodlum, leading a mob into settlers’ homes to pour tar into their beds and rush them into the streets, forcing them to “protest” the government-sanctioned bulldozers against their will? Is younger brother Nadav young and sensitive or mentally challenged; and why should we care about his dog Herschel’s recovery, which is a running sub-plot through the end of the production? There is secretiveness between Chava and Avner about a red suitcase, a suspenseful road to nowhere three-quarters to the play’s end. Amalia’s last-minute change of political-mind rings hollow, as nothing in her life as a devoutly religious woman and West Bank settler seeing more than a fair share of destruction and death would lead her to the final conclusion written for the character.
In the end, there are too many characters for the audience to focus on the play’s central core, its gravitational pull. People come and go, the screen door perpetually opens and slams shut as the play’s inhabitants make cameo appearances. We don’t get the full impact of what made any of them who they are. What or whom is responsible for their transformations. Then again, we never got a sense of what they transformed from in the first place.
Pangs of the Messiah is worth its performance, as most of the actors give their all in showing the emotional conflict and the terror of losing it all, even if the script they must interpret is flawed. Brent T. Barnes’ “Benny” is especially riveting, and needed a production all of his own. What makes a Jewish father of four reason away the deaths of Arab children as “collateral damage,” as he fights for the right of survival for his own children? What makes him turn in violence against his own family and risk his mortal freedom, leaving his wife and children behind (and after experiencing that risk before), all in the name of a small patch of arid land? I would look forward to see Benny’s story realized the next time Mr. Lerner takes pen in hand.