‘Hard Love’ at the JET resonates across any cultural conflict
Hard Love, by Motti Lerner, now playing in a fascinating, compelling production at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, pulls us into the lives of two vivid characters, whose very specific story will resonate with anyone on some level.
On the surface, the play is about the sometimes impossibility of achieving love, even with the one you think you love the most.
But after diving into the depths of this particular obsessive relationship, the show surfaces with the ultimate, universal questions: Can we compromise beliefs and personal values, even for a loved one? When does sticking to your own line become a harmful betrayal of the other?
How can adherents of opposite tenants come together in truce? And oh yes, is there a Supreme Being? (And why does that deity allow, maybe bring on, cruelty?)
The play is set in contemporary Israel, and portrays the conflict – on a personal scale – between strictly Orthodox Jews and the more secular world. Although immersed in the atmosphere of these parts of Israel, the schism laid forth is found everywhere.
Change details and it could be about an observant Amish and a partner whose run from the community, between a devout evangelical and an ex-spouse who views their religion as a manifest of narrow-minded thinking. And on and on.
The couple at the center of the play – portrayed with riveting intensity by Inga R. Wilson and Drew Parker – bring new meaning to the phrase, “It’s complicated.”
Zvi (born Herschel) left the fold two decades ago and is adamantly secular, yet retains a consuming passion for his ex wife, Hannah, who remained in the Orthodox neighborhood and way of life. But Zvi is even more affected by – and fanatically against – the religion she still faithfully practices. Zvi saw this religion as having stifled his mother so much she committed suicide. And he is almost repulsed at what he sees as Hannah’s loveless, binding second marriage to a much older leader of the yeshivah.
They are brought together again to discuss their children, by their second marriages. His son and her daughter, now teens, have met and – deja vu all over again – are forming their own relationship against the same odds of hard-line religion versus a secular life.
At play’s open, they are meeting for the first time in decades. Zvi stalks around Hannah’s apartment, invading her physical space even as she averts her eyes from him. Minutes of impassioned dialog in which two actors are close to each other but never making eye contact is itself an uneasily engrossing experience for audience. And this offsetting, emotional imbalance will continue to rock us throughout the show.
In these early moments, you might empathize with Hannah, and be uncomfortable with Zvi’s pushiness. Even as you come to learn of and sympathize with why he experienced a profound rejection of her demanding religion. Later on, you might become even more frustrated with him as play progresses and the tables turn. And turn again. Or you might, in the back of your mind, wonder what exactly her motives and desires really are.
It’s a sign of good writing and acting when you want to jump up on a stage and either slap or hug an actor. And these two actors, carrying the show, do pull the audience in. At the first performance Parker, he of the forceful Zvi presence, might have flubbed just a line or two. It was the most microscopic imperfection in an otherwise flawless jewel of a production.
Linda Ramsay-Detherage has ably conducted the actors through this emotional bouncy-house, along with the fine technical support of the JET team. Of special note is scenic designer Elspeth Williams’ two sets – one the simple old-fashioned Jerusalem apartment of Hannah, the other Zvi’s modern Tel Aviv digs. (And is it coincidence that in Hannah’s conservative apartment the actors exit stage right, while the entrance to Zvi’s place is stage left?)
A true revelation in the production is Inga R. Wilson’s Hannah. I don’t know Wilson’s background, but it’s possible an actor from Minnesota named Inga might not have been raised in Orthodox Judaism. Yet Wilson lives in the skin of this Israeli woman. We see her in turns the timid yet strong-willed housewife whose still waters still run deep for her insistent ex-husband. She is torn between the life she has lived for nearly 40 years and the one man she has really loved. Her performance is like watching ice transform to liquid, as she views the possibility of joy and a new life, in more ways than one.
You will have to see for yourself whether these possibilities will expand to the size of the Red Sea, or evaporate in a hot desert.