Dialing Up the Drama: Pangs calls up questions about home and family.

There are knots tied upon knots in the terrible, wonderful play onstage at Theater J, conflicts and complications so multifarious that the extended family ensnared in them can’t finish its own sentences. A daughter or a brother or a son will begin a confession or a complaint or simply a plaintive query, but a wife or a sister or a brother-in-law will walk into the room, and suddenly the thought is too risky, too fraught, to finish. It’s an acute and deeply human portrait of a clan pressurized by both internal and external forces to the point of implosion—and, as it turns out, explosion—and that alone would be enough to make it a success. What makes Pangs of the Messiah a downright triumph is how the family’s identity and the nature of those pressures—and the implications of that explosion—transform their intimate little tragedy into an epic on a Shakespearean scale. It’s frightening, and moving, and all too potentially real.

Motti Lerner’s finely drawn, carefully fleshed-out characters are Israeli settlers in the West Bank—people who’ve pioneered a community in a land they believe they’ve been called to, a clan that, in the play’s near-future time frame, faces the possibility of a negotiated settlement that will force it out of a place that in many ways is its identity. And the forces that drive them, inspire them, and infuriate them are the intricate political pressures and religious yearnings—their own, and those of their neighbors on both sides of that winding security barrier—that keep turning the world’s attention to that place.

A little knowledge of those dynamics will help, of course—one moment, startling enough on its own, will chill the blood of anyone who remembers the tragic how and why of Yitzhak Rabin’s death—though for audiences unfamiliar with the fine points, Pangs of the Messiah plays satisfyingly, like an unfolding thriller, with clues about roles and relationships sprinkled liberally throughout the first act and a genuinely gripping sense of gathering menace pervading the second.

And as the pieces come together, Lerner’s people begin to come apart. Protagonist Shmuel, the devout, politically adept rabbi who leads the settlers’ committee, discovers that his old strategies aren’t working so well and his followers aren’t following so closely. In the increasingly charged atmosphere, with protests blossoming at checkpoints and a White House signing ceremony looming, he and his family argue questions that passionate activists in every cause eventually have to confront—whether peaceful protest or militant resistance is what will turn the day, whether to “shake the heavens” with prayers or with the noise of explosives—until the personal and the political and the religious are indistinguishable, and the point of no return has been passed.

It’s a horrifying thought, the notion that the prospect of peace for two nations must mean agony for one family, but the power of Lerner’s play lies in its realism. The power of Theater J’s production lies in the superb ensemble performance that director Sinai Peter, visiting from Tel Aviv, has coached out of the D.C.-based cast. Michael Tolaydo all but vanishes into the character of Shmuel, familiar speech patterns eliding into a faintly exotic accent that evokes personal weariness and political wiliness at once. Laura Giannarelli, playing Shmuel’s wife, compresses her formidable presence into the even more formidable persona of a veteran of many a struggle; her Amalia can mother sons and husband alike as they wrangle and plot, then summon a warrior’s resolve when it’s time to organize crowds at the checkpoints, deciding ruthlessly in one breath that elementary-school children ought to be deployed at a protest march and warning in the next that there are elements among the settlers who might easily go too far. Joel Reuben Ganz broods dangerously as Shmuel’s resentfully zealous son-in-law, who’s been one of the latter in the past, Norman Aronovic contributes a wounded, dignified performance as his estranged father, and Becky Peters and John Johnston spar amusingly, and then disturbingly, as a couple increasingly divided by considerations domestic and political.

And both Alexander Strain, gently and precisely inhabiting the play’s only real innocent, and Lindsay Haynes, as a wife whose innocence has been stripped all too cruelly away, turn in wrenching portrayals of people caught up in the passions of those closest to them. Their devastation, once the play reaches its promised, punishing end, is sensitively written and heart-rendingly played—and it’s no small part of what elevates Pangs of the Messiah from the plane of artful sociopolitical argument to the realm of pure, annealing art.