Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

Return to Haifa

Return to Haifa by margaret lewis
Return to Haifa

Directed by Jason Southerland

At Next Theatre Evanston

Powerful drama put faces on the roots of the Israeli-Palestine conflict

Evanston native playwright Margaret Lewis has penned a look at two families–one Palestinian and one Jewish on the eve of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.  At that time, the city of Haifa found intense fighting between Arabs and Jews that lead to more than 500,000 Arabs abandoning their homes and shops to escape the violence.

Return to Haifa

We meet two displaced Polish Jews–Jacob (Daniel Cantor) and his paranoid wife Sarah (Saren Nofs-Snyder) as they end up in Israel after years in Auschwitz. The new Jewish administration in Haifa gives Jacob and Sarah a home near the sea complete with all the furnishing. It also comes with a surprise–an abandoned child in a crib.

Return to Haifa

Flashback to 1947 in the same house where Ishmail (Anish Jethmalani) and his wife Safiyeh (Diana Simonzadeh) are two Arabs who have moved from rural Palestine to Hiafa to live a better life. Ishmail is a shoemaker who desires a shop of his own. Neither he nor his wife are either political nor religious fanatice–they simply want to live a peaceful prosperous life. They detest all fighters–Jews and Arabs. Ishmail ignores all the violence around him as the Jewish state is born.  He and Safiyeh dote over their first born son of six months. He is their hope.

Return to Haifa

These early scenes find the Jewish couple trying to forget their troubles and start a new life in Haifa and the Arab couple simply wants to maintain the status quo. Their roles become reversed in 1948 as the Arabs flew Haifa during chaotic fighting. Ishmail disappears and Safiyeh gets separated from her home and her baby. Jacob and Sarah find the baby a few days later as they get resettled in Ishmail’s home in Haifa.

These early scenes firmly demonstrate the wholesomeness of Ishamil and Safiyeh and the desperation and rage in the Jews as they establish a country of their own. Sarah is troubled at the tactics of the new Jewish state but Jakob is firmly for Israel.  Sarah’s motherly instincts bring her to nurture and raise the found infant as her own.

Act two is set in 1967 during the end of the Six Days War at a refugee camp in Ramallah on the West Bank. Ishmail and Safiyeh are raising their family of three boys and a girl in the camp. Ishmail has become a bitter anti-Israel Arab and Safiyeh only is concerned with her family. Khalid (Todd Garcia) is the artistic son now more interested in becoming a fighter for Palestine than continuing with his piano lessons. His parents don’t want him to become a  fighter. Once the war ends, travel to Haifa is now possible and Ishmail and Safiyeh desire to see their old home on the sea.

Upon arrival at their former home, Sarah invites them in as they explain the reasons for the visit after 19 years.  Moishe–Ishmail’s son raise by Jakob and Sarah as an Israeli come home and is shocked by meeting hie birth parents. This dramatic  scene is powerful as all parties to the events of 19 years must face the consequences of their actions. Moishe can’t understand why Safiyeh left him and why neither of his birth parents came back during the 19 years.

The lingering question as to why Safiyeh didn’t do more to get her infant son is unforgivable to Moishe and Sarah.  Return to Haifa is splendid drama that humanizes the shared events during a crises and how one reacts to traumatic events.  The two mothers exchange stories about what happened to them and their infants.  We witness how events can determine the fate of families.

Return to Haifa is a moving saga that aptly depicts just one of the complex issues that marks the Arab-Israeli conflict.  This is a bold and poignant story told truthfully. The cast, particularly Daniel Cantor, Anish Jethmalani were effective but Saren Nofs-Snyder and Diana Simonzadek rendered emotionally deep and honest performances that you’ll not soon forget. Lewis’ writing is tight, accurate and explosive. Return to Haifa is a most worthy world premiere.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Jeff Recommended

At  Next Theatre Company, through March 21, 2010, located in Evanston at The Noyes Cultural Arts Center.  Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (talkback discussions after), Wednesday matinees 2/24 and 3/3 at 1 p.m.  Tickets range from $25-$40 and can be purchased by calling 847-475-1875 xt 2 or online at   The theater is located at 927 Noyes Street in North Evanston and there is some street parking as well as lots.  You can also get there by L, exiting the Noyes stop.  Reduced ticket prices for students under $25.

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