Theater Review: “Hard Love” — A Timely Exploration of a Bitter Religious Rift

Motti Lerner’s characters succeed in making both the secular and ultra-religious life appear rewarding and believable.

Hard Love, written by Motti Lerner. Translated by Anthony Berris. Directed by Melia Bensussen, with Dakota Shepard and Mark Cohen. Staged by Israeli Stage at the Goethe-Institut in Boston on February 23.

Dakota Shepard in the staged reading of "Hard Love." Photo:

Dakota Shepard in Israeli Stage’s presentation of “Hard Love.” Photo: Alena Kuzub.

By Helen Epstein

Guy Ben-Aharon’s Israeli Stage, whose mission is to present plays from contemporary Israel to American audience, offered another stellar reading Sunday at Goethe-Institut in Boston. Hard Love by veteran Israeli playwright Motti Lerner was first produced in 2002 but its theme — the bitter rift between fundamentalist and secular Jews — is as timely as it was then, both within Israel and without.

This highly polished staged reading was directed by the OBIE-award winning Melia Bensussen, who chairs the Performing Arts Department at Emerson College, and performed by two strong local actors: Dakota Shepard and Mark Cohen.

The play itself is an unusual variant of two-hander. Hannah is 37 and married to a much older Head of a Yeshiva in the orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, Meah She’arim. Her ex-husband Hershel — who now calls himself Zvi — abandoned her and their ultra-orthodox community 20 years earlier to become a writer.

Zvi has also remarried and lives in the flamboyantly irreligious beach city of Tel Aviv. Both have children: he, a boy named Eran; she, a girl named Rifka.

As the play opens, Hannah has summoned Zvi to a meeting after two decades: their children have somehow met and fallen in love. The conflicts that led to their breakup have been re-ignited by the romantic entanglement of their two children and the resulting hour and a half of theater is a satisfying exploration of ideas and emotions.

Lerner’s characters succeed in making both the secular and ultra-religious life appear rewarding and believable though I myself — a lifelong secular Jew — found the ultra-orthodox Hannah far more sympathetic in her need for a God-centered life than Zvi’s need for a Godless one. I was always aware that the conflict onstage is being played out all over the world, in every religious and ethnic community and that this is a play with universal appeal.

Both Dakota Shepard and Mark Cohen are actors of considerable range and nuance and director Bensussen has elicited far more from this reading than I have often seen in finished productions.

Israeli Stage’s series is a great addition to Boston’s theatrical mix and I look forward to their staged readings of their next Israeli playwright, Savyon Liebrecht.

Arts Fuse interviews with Motti Lerner and Melia Bensussen.

Helen Epstein is the author of the books Joe Papp: An American Life and Music Talks, both available from Plunkett Lake eBooks , whose most recent ebook is Jean-Denis Bredin’s The Affair.

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