Paradise

JERUSALEM (Reuters) [Monday, March 14] - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected a Palestinian bid Monday to win a formal cease-fire with militants, a statement from his office said.

"The cease-fire the Palestinians are working for does not give up the terror option, and is not a solution, and to this we cannot agree," Sharon told the visiting Dutch prime minister in a meeting that took place after Palestinian militant leaders suggested in Cairo they were ready to offer a formal truce.

And so it goes... News about the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a staple of our lives—so much so, perhaps, that it's become just so much background noise, taken for granted, and we frequently stop listening. Which is why a play like Glyn O'Malley's Paradise is so necessary. This is a work of theatre that puts names and faces to the anonymous victims of the war in the Middle East, reminding us that at the center of all the abstract talk of statehood and terrorism and suicide bombing and retaliation there are real live human beings, coping and suffering and surviving in a place that's badly broken—a place that we comfortable Americans can only try to imagine, our recent scary 9/11 experience notwithstanding.

Perhaps even more importantly, O'Malley has written—courageously, unabashedly—a play of ideas. Paradise's characters are people, but they're also archetypes which the playwright has crafted to explore a collision of concepts involving fundamental notions of faith, religion, and history. Is the Israeli woman who has moved to the West Bank to protect her country's birthright any more "right" or "wrong" than the Palestinian man who has become a clandestine member of Hamas bent on destroying his nation's oppressors? O'Malley doesn't take sides in Paradise, but instead lets us see as many sides of the issue as possible. The only thing I was absolutely sure about afterward was the massive, tragic waste of life that this complicated conflict has engendered.

O'Malley tells five stories in Paradise—stories that eventually intersect in unexpected and un-looked-for ways. Sarah is an American Jewish teenager who has just moved to Israel to live with her mother, Shoshana. Sarah's parents are divorced, and for a long time she lived in the States with her father; but now he has a new job that makes that impossible, so she has joined her mom in one of the West Bank settlements that are at the center of violence of the Intifada (the year is 2002). Shoshana, daughter of Holocaust survivors, explains that she has come here because she feels compelled to do something to serve her country and to fight its enemies. Israel won this land in the 1967 war, she tells Sarah; its theirs to defend.

Sarah, with the resilience characteristic of many teenagers, quickly adjusts to her new life, even as she questions her mother's positions, which seem to her both intractable and inscrutable. But as the random destructiveness of suicide bombings hits closer and closer to home, her outlook begins to change.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same town, we meet Fatima, a Palestinian girl about the same age as Sarah. She is currently being visited by her cousin and friend, Omar, who with his family recently emigrated to the U.S., where he attends college. Omar's parents have asked Fatima's father to allow them to bring Fatima to America, where she can escape the daily carnage of the Intifada and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But Fatima's brother Achmed is deeply entrenched in the Palestinian resistance movement, and after he is killed his friend Bassam becomes a sort of confessor and advisor to Fatima. She had written some propaganda for Achmed and Bassam to use in their movement; now Bassam wants her to make a more significant contribution—and she is listening.

The strength of O'Malley's writing is that among the myriad of choices that his characters have to make in the course of the play, not one is presented as simple or straightforward. Sure, Fatima can go to America—except how then does she reconcile her perceived duties to her family, her religion, her dead brother? Sure, Sarah can disagree with her mother about politics and war—but then how does she live with the violence that threatens her friends' and her own daily well-being?

This production of Paradise, produced by Gary Allen, is very fine. O'Malley has directed his own script as a taut, tough thriller that gradually accelerates toward its explosive climax. The actors—Carmen Roman as Shoshana, Arian Moayed as Omar, Janine Barris as Sarah, Vaneik Echeverria as Bassam, and Sanaz Alexander as Fatima—are all effective (though Alexander seems a little uncertain of her characterization at times). Austin K. Sanderson's spartan set design, Phil Monat's lighting, and Matt Berman's invaluable sound design all contribute importantly to the finished product.

O'Malley ends his play with a ray of hope, which is beautiful; it would be impossibly sad if he did not. But, as I have said, it is the hopelessness, the wastefulness, and the mercilessness of the situation's reality that resonates.