Arizona theater presents Israeli playwright

Jerusalem Mea Shearim square (Israel)Mea Shearim square, an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, is the setting for Act I of Motti Lerner’s “Hard Love” (Photo:  Ahron de Leeuw)

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company opened its 2010-2011 season with “Hard Love” by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris.

Janet Arnold, the company’s producing director and director of this work, notes that it’s the first Israeli play performed on an Arizona stage.

Lerner was born in Israel in 1949. The program for the show also notes that he “teaches playwriting at the Kibbutz College in Tel Aviv and has been active in the peace movement in Israel since 1973.”

Act I is set in “one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, established in 1874” and inhabited by adherents to “the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism.” Act II is set in Tel Aviv, “a very modern, cosmopolitan city” likened by some to “a little Manhattan.”

I entered the John Paul Theatre at Phoenix College, where AJTC performs, knowing nothing of Lerner’s work. Less than two hours later, I left a staunch admirer — and I wasn’t alone.

Two gentlemen a bit older than I sat on a bench in the lobby after the show discussing how “moving” the experience of seeing the work had been compared to the more familiar musical theatre fare they often enjoy.

The play considers the lives of two young lovers who marry but go their separate ways after tragedy strikes. Their differences are apparent in their contrasting styles of dress, decor and more.

“Hard Love” opens as one knocks upon the other’s door some two decades later, after each has remarried and raised a child. It ends as one exits a door, and the audience is left to wonder.

Can a love rent by religious differences ever be restored? When do rules turn from guideposts into chains? How do we balance duty with desire?

Why do parents lament seeing themselves in their children? Does atheism have its own orthodoxy? Why are some windows opened while others stay tightly shuttered?

“Hard Love” is a must-see work for those with an interest in religion and relationships, for those who’ve ever dreamed of rekindling a long-lost love, for those who wrestle with their own faith and/or doubt.

Both cast members, Eric Schoen (Zvi) and Lesley Ariel Tutnick (Hannah), deliver strong performances. Schoen’s extensive background in performing the works of Shakespeare is evident.

There’s stiff competition in Valley theater this weekend, but “Hard Love” should be at or very near the top of your list. It’s gripping storytelling exquisitely directed.

— Lynn

Note:  Click here to learn more about “Hard Love” as well as Arizona Jewish Theatre Company youth programs — including Curtain Call Youtheatre (which presents “Village of Idiots” in December) and the All Rights Reserved teen improv troupe. And check out the AJTC online auction for your chance to enjoy everything from brownies to a beach vacation.

Coming up: “An Evening of New Works” hosted by Phoenix Theatre