Borderline Brilliant: A Palestinian family visits the Israeli family living in its old home.

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No playhouse in town can match Theater J’s appetite for controversy. In the case of Return to Haifa, the superb 2008 Hebrew adaptation of a novella written by a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for which Theater J is hosting the U.S. premiere—go ahead and read all that again; I’ll wait—the company gets several controversies in one. First, the guy who wrote the novella, Ghassan Kanafani, was killed in a 1972 car bombing alleged in some quarters to have been the handiwork of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. Decades later, when Israeli journalist Boaz Gaon got the Kanafani estate to grant him the rights to adapt the book for Tel Aviv’s venerable Cameri Theatre, the production drew protests from both sides. Some Israelis were outraged that their nation’s largest public theater would produce a work first conceived by a Palestinian advocate, while some Palestinians balked that Gaon’s adaptation was more sympathetic to its Jewish characters than the novella had been. Then there was the issue of the unauthorized Return to Haifa presented outside of Chicago about a year ago. Evanston’s, Ill.’s Next Theatre fired its artistic director for staging an English-language copycat “inspired by” Kanafani’s novella after failing to obtain the rights or, indeed, to even bother changing the title of the story he was ripping off. Details!

After all this, the sober, fully-wrought drama that unfolds on Theater J’s stage is notable for how uninflammatory it feels. Though it gets right to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian rift that has stymied diplomacy for decades, the story remains stubbornly human-scale. In 1948, Polish Jews Ephraim and Miriam seek a house after months in a refugee camp. Because of their scarcity, houses are reserved for families, but a Jewish Agency clerk offers Ephraim the keys on one daunting condition. Nineteen years later, the house’s Arab previous owners, Sa’id and Saffiyeh, come back to visit their old residence and reclaim a treasure they were forced to leave behind when they fled at the end of British rule.

The show is performed in Hebrew and Arabic by the Cameri Theatre’s cast, and the subtitles seem to protect the story from the grandiosity to which it might otherwise be vulnerable. Being deprived of intelligible words focused my attention on the fine grain of the performances; it was impossible to see the characters as totems of their national or religious identities. Their discomfort in an awkward first encounter, sitting together and drinking the coffee Miriam has offered, all engaging in a shared act of determined politesse, is the same. So is their agony when a member of their family is lost to them. As one character says when removing the jacket of his Army uniform, “Don’t make a political thing out of it. I’m just hot.” By tracking closely the personal motives perpetuating an ancient conflict, Return to Haifa hits like a revelation.