Arts Desk

Theater J’s Apples From the Desert, Reviewed

Apples From the Desert is a clever title for a play with a familiar storyline, but unfamiliar setting. Many a play, reality show, and soap opera has revolved around a chaffing child with overbearing parents who finally breaks free, leaving her family to ponder whether the prodigal son or daughter will return. But in this case, the home is strictly kosher, married women keep their hair covered, and there’s a mezuzah by the door.

This is the orthodox Jewish version of the prodigal-child story, but before you pass over Apples because you’ve already seen or read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, note that this is the mother-daughter version, and it’s set in Israel, not Brooklyn. Also: the preferred diversion is dancing rather than playing baseball, and there’s a lot less Talmudic debate.

Blair Bowers plays Rivka, a free-spirited Sephardic orthodox girl who comes of age in 1980s Jerusalem. Midway through Act I, there’s a scene where Bowers sits at a kitchen table polishing brass Shabbat candlesticks. A mischievous smile flits across her face, and she extends her foot out in a tendu right. Still soon both feet are darting back-and-forth beneath the table. Then she’s up and dancing around the kitchen.

And then her father walks in, and Rivka is in deep, deep trouble. Folk-influenced modern was popular in Israel then and now, but not in Sephardic communities. And as her mother and aunt have already deduced by this point in the play, Rivka is sneaking off to classes and falling in love with a fellow dancer. Now she’s one more chastisement away from running off to a kibbutz. But the play is just as much about her parents’ arranged marriage as it is about Rivka’s budding romance. Jennifer Mendenhall and Michael Tolaydo play Reuven and Victoria, 25 or so years into their tense domesticity. Victoria rarely leaves the home, and relies on her spinster sister Sarah (Sarah Marshall) for synagogue gossip.

“I don't know what's better, Victoria, your marriage or my non-marriage,” Sarah says. “You live like a bird in a cage and I move from house to house like a cat. Neither of us lives like a human being.”

The sisters sneak off to visit Rivka on her kibbutz, but just when Victoria is getting comfortable with not keeping quite as kosher, Reuven arrives to round up his womenfolk. Tolaydo is in a tough position, playing an unsympathetic character with a violent streak. Marshall is much more watchable as the perfect biddy of an aunt who adopted a shuffling gate and a shopping bag full of nervous ticks for the role. A grand dame of D.C. acting, Marshall was also fantastic last year playing another theatrical busybody: Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menegarie. While the average American theatergoer may relate more to Tom and Laura’s cloistered life in a St. Louis apartment than to the Abarbanel women’s sheltered existence in Jerusalem—the play assumes a certain knowledge of Jewish faith and customs—both plays explore parental expectations and cultural traditions. Tennessee Williams’ drama ends sourly, with lemonade by candlelight. It’s not a far better play that ends with sunshine, apples, and honey, but it is far sweeter.

The play runs at Theater J to Jan. 6.

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