JET brings to the stage a romance fraught with tension and the dynamics of religion.
In the opening scene of Motti Lerner’s Hard Love on the JET stage, Zvi (Drew Parker) and Hannah (Inga R. Wilson) are meeting for the first time since their divorce 20 years earlier. Hannah has asked Zvi to come to her home in Me’a She’arim, an isolated enclave in Jerusalem where the ultra-Orthodox, sometimes called haredi, reside. In an ironic twist of fate, their children from their respective second marriages have somehow met and fallen in love, and Hannah wants to discuss the situation.
As the scene unfolds, we learn why the couple’s marriage fell apart two decades ago: Although they grew up in the same community, Zvi, formerly called Hershel, lost his faith and left to pursue a secular life as a novelist in Tel Aviv. Two years later, he is in the process of a second divorce, while Hannah is living with the much older, and sickly man she married after Tvi left. It soon becomes clear that the two still have deep feelings for each other, despite their long separation and the different paths they have chosen.
Originally written in Hebrew and translated by Anthony Berris, the play was first produced in 2003, but its theme and the questions it poses remain timely. We feel for Zvi and Hannah as their obvious love and passion keep bumping up against their disparate beliefs and lifestyles.
The play, directed by Linda Ramsay-Detherage, who wrote the acclaimed 2015 JET production Sugarhill runs 90 minutes plus intermission. There are two characters, Hannah and Zvi, and two scenes, Hannah’s sparse Jerusalem apartment and Zvi’s more modern dwelling in Tel Aviv. Ramsay-Detherage keeps things moving at a good pace, and the actors are first-rate and completely believable as they struggle to reconcile their feelings with their beliefs.
The sets and props, by scenic designer/technical director Elspeth Williams and property designer/production stage manager Harold Jurkewicz, effectively reinforce the characters’ disparities. Hannah’s apartment is spare and somewhat grim in its décor or lack thereof; there are a few pieces of utilitarian furniture and the requisite bookshelves filled with religious tomes. In contrast, Zvi’s apartment has modern furniture and accessories; a colorful painting hangs on the wall.
Mary Copenhagen’s costumes outwardly depict the couple’s inner differences. Zvi wears jeans and a T-shirt and even sports a tattoo, while Hannah wears the modest clothing of an Orthodox woman. The production is rounded out with sound by Matt Lira and lighting designed by Neil Koivu.
Secular or less observant Jews in this country may be frustrated by the characters and their story. Why can’t these two people reconcile their differences in order to be together when it is clearly something they have both fervently wanted since their separation 20 years ago?
Those with knowledge of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, especially in a place like Me’a She’arim, where women have been shouted at for baring their arms in public, might understand how a woman such as Hannah can no more change her beliefs than the color of her eyes, no matter how much she longs for a different outcome. Zvi is just as, if not more, immutable. He is not simply indifferent to God and the idea of a faith-based life; rather he sees God as a force of evil, an unwelcome presence in his home and his life.
While the play poses many serious questions, in the end it does not provide any answers. Can love and passion be enough to overcome such significant religious differences? It is said that sometimes no answer is an answer in itself. Perhaps this is one of those times.
Hard Love runs through May 6 at the JET Theatre inside the West Bloomfield JCC. $16-$44. (248) 788-2900; jettheatre.org.