Theatre Or, in preparation for their participation in the first annual Stoneleaf Theatre Festival in Asheville, is presenting a full-scale production of one of the shows they featured in their recent Voices from the Holy Land: A Festival of Staged Readings of Cutting-Edge Plays by contemporary Israeli playwrights. Hard Love, written originally in Hebrew by Motti Lerner, is having its English-language and American-stage premiere right now at Durham’s new Common Ground Theatre, as a preview of the work’s appearance at Stoneleaf.

Directed by Jeffery West and supported by a visit during rehearsal from the playwright, Hard Love is, on the surface, a meeting between the two halves of a long-divorced couple. Though happily married up until 20 years ago, the couple was forced to divorce when the husband turned his back on his Orthodox Jewish faith. The two would not be meeting now were it not for the fact that her daughter by her second marriage, and his son from his, have met and are dating. This is serious enough that Hannah (Theatre Or’s Diane Gilboa) feels that she and Hershel, her ex (PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Jeffrey Blair Cornell), must meet and discuss this debacle in the making.

Thus, Lerner turns this discussion into something much deeper and more serious than a simple disagreement over their children. What transpires is what he calls a debate, and what others might call an argument, over the pros and cons of Orthodoxy itself, and on top of that, God, Himself, as well.

Lerner makes sure that both sides are well-armed. Hannah, after her divorce from Hershel, married a man many years her senior. He took it upon himself to provide for Hannah’s insatiable search for knowledge by teaching her what he himself was being taught: the laws and rules of living as a member of the Jewish Orthodoxy. So, Hannah is far more knowledgeable about the faith she adheres to than she has any right to be; women are not, as a rule, taught the ins and outs of the faith, that being the duty of the man of the household to pursue.

But the man she calls Hershel, who now calls himself Zvi, knows all too well what a woman of the faith endures. He watched it happen to his mother, who committed suicide; he now sees it happening to Hannah. And he fears, most strongly, that any connection with his old faith will result in his being yanked back, either through seduction or force, into the fold. And this is the one thing that he fears more than any other. He strongly believes that all the strenuous adherence to laws and rules and endless “study” is simply a means by which people are kept afraid and obedient; and that the “God” to which they pray is not even there or, at the very best, not listening.

This full-length, two-act play comes literally in two parts. Act I takes place in the apartment of Hannah and her family, in Jerusalem. Act II is in Zvi’s apartment in Tel Aviv, over two months later. Zvi is stunned to see Hannah, who has come to see him and let herself in unannounced. Zvi is, nevertheless, glad she has come; he has something he wishes to discuss with her.

One of the last things he had told Hannah before he left her apartment apparently for good was that she should not fear that his son Eran would steal her daughter, Rivka, away from her and the faith; that Eran was too much a free soul to ever settle down, and that Rivka would simply be another of his many affairs. Now, he finds it is necessary to try to save Eran from the clutches of Rivka and her religion. His son has left home; left the University; shaved his head and grown the necessary ringlets to show his Orthodoxy; further, he has denounced his father and now lives in Jerusalem to be close to Rivka. This has infuriated Zvi, and despite the fact that Hannah did not come to discuss their children the “debate” is again taken up.

This work is performed by two veteran actors who are very much inside the skins of their characters. Costumes designed by Mary Strauss are contemporary but also undeniably Israeli, including the yamakah, and the hairdresses that Hannah must wear constantly. Sound design is by David Johnson and includes, both during scene breaks and entr’acte, the wonderful music of Israel. The sum is a work that is almost never seen outside of its country of origin, given the full attention of a company that has presented hallmark productions since its inception. Whether you see the show this weekend or travel to Asheville for Stoneleaf, you should see this production. It is an eye on a world you might never otherwise know, and an eye-opener it is, indeed.

Theatre Or presents Hard Love Thursday-Friday, May 26-27, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 28, at 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday, May 29, at 2 p.m. at the Common Ground Theatre, 4815-B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $11-$16. 919/990-1994 or via etix at the presenter’s site. Motti Lerner: Theatre Or: [inactive 3/06]. Stoneleaf Theatre Festival: [inactive 8/08].

PREVIEW: Theatre Or: Ultra-Orthodox Beliefs Separate Lovers in Hard Love by Motti Lerner

by Robert W. McDowell

Theatre Or will present the American (and English-language) premiere of Hard Love by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner May 19-29 at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC and June 1-5 at the First Annual Stoneleaf Festival in Asheville, NC. (Hard Love had its world premiere at the Haifa Municipal Theatre in Israel in 2003 and played there for more than a year.)

Produced by Theatre Or producing director Diane Gilboa and directed by Theater Studies at Duke University faculty member Jeffery West, Theatre Or’s full-scale production of this powerful two-character drama will star Gilboa and Playmakers Repertory Company member Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Hannah and Zvi (nee Hershel). Hannah and Zvi are a former wife and husband who married in their teens but were forced to divorce, shortly afterwards, when he abandoned the beliefs of their ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism. Two decades after their painful parting, a blossoming romantic relationship between their children by subsequent spouses forces them to meet again, first, at Hannah’s home in the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem and, later, in Zvi’s ultra-modern apartment in Tel Aviv.

In an interview for last November’s staged reading of Hard Love, superbly directed for Theatre Or by Joseph Megel of StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and passionately performed by Gilboa and Transactors Improv Co. director Greg Hohn as part of Voices from the Holy Land: A Festival of Staged Readings of Cutting-Edge Plays by contemporary Israeli playwrights, Diane Gilboa told Robert’s Reviews:

Hard Love is a complicated, sophisticated contemporary romance between an ultra-Orthodox woman and a secular intellectual who were married briefly 20 years earlier. They were forced to divorce when they were teens when the husband turned his back on religion. Now, their children have fallen in love, and they need to discuss this relationship. At the same time, because of their circumstances, they wonder if they can rekindle their own relationship. Are the differences between them too great, or is there hope for their relationship? The play poses questions about secular-religious relationships. It’s a plea for tolerance and warning against extremism, wherever it may be found. It uses a love story to do this, which is kind of an interesting treatment.”

Director Jeffery West says, “I first encountered [Israeli playwright] Motti Lerner when he did a semester at Duke in 1997.” The then-chairman of the Theater Studies department asked West to direct Lerner’s play Autumn, in which a middle-aged farmer falls in love with the daughter of an ex-lover, thus enraging his own wife and children.

Since there was no budget for this production, West recalls, “I decided to do Autumn as a radio play, and we did it and it was fun. We also had trouble finding people to play the matriarch and patriarch of the family in the play, so I ended up assistant directing and playing the patriarch, and I got Diane Gilboa to play my wife.”

West adds, “I really liked working with [Motti Lerner]. He’s a brilliant guy and a wonderful artist. I kept up with him in the intervening years. Anything that he was doing on the East Coast, I went to see. After [Diane Gilboa] founded Theatre Or, [Lerner] sent Hard Love to both of us after he finished it in 2003. She loved it, but I wasn’t as enthusiastic at first. I thought it was pretty Israeli.

“Diane wanted to do it this year,” West explains, “and was casting about for directors. She asked me to reread it, and I did. It occurred to me that [Hard Love] had a lot more to say about the role of religious extremism in the world than I’d first noticed or paid attention to.”

West adds, “[Diane] wanted to play Hannah, and she was looking for a Zvi. She has such a passion for the script, and she’s perfect for the part.” West, who last year performed in King Lear with Jeffrey Blair Cornell, thought that Cornell would perfect for the part of the apostate Israeli journalist who tempts the ultra-Orthodox housewife to have an affair behind the back of her aging, ailing, ultra-Orthodox husband.

Moreover, West adds, “Jeff is a great actor, and he’s just a pleasure to work with.”

Having playwright Motti Lerner in residence during rehearsals for Hard Love was extremely helpful, says Jeffery West. “We got to spend a week with Motti, thanks to Diane’s generosity…. His translator is a guy who was trained in British English, so much of the play had syntactical choices that were not very American…. The more we could make [Hard Love] conversational American, the better. [The play] also has a difficult ending. We worked together in crafting an ending that everybody is happy with now not that it’s a happy ending.”

In addition to producer Diane Gilboa and director Jeffery West, the show’s production team includes set designer James Cuthrell, lighting designer Jon Harper, and sound designer David Johnston. (West said the actors furnished their own costumes.)

West said the challenge of staging Hard Love in two different cities, on two very different stages, is daunting.

From May 19 to 29, West notes, “We’re at Common Ground Theater, which is a black-box theater. We’re also going to be in Asheville [June 1-5] on a stage that’s nine feet narrower. The stage in Asheville is a skinny thrust; the stage at Common Ground is a narrow proscenium stage. That’s the major challenge: to figure out a way for the play to work in these two odd spaces.”

Editor’s note: To read Robert’s Reviews’ original preview and review of this play, see [inactive 12/05]..

Theatre Or presents Hard Love Thursday-Friday, May 19-20 and 26-27, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 21 and 28, at 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday, May 22 and 29, at 2 p.m. at the Common Ground Theatre, 4815-B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $11-$16. 919/990-1994 or via etix, at the presenter’s site. Note: The May 20th performance is SOLD OUT. Motti Lerner: Theatre Or: [inactive 3/06]. Stoneleaf Theatre Festival: [inactive 8/08].