David Grossman's "To the End of the Land" Compellingly Transported to the Stage

07/26/2017 04:41 pm ET

Families at war are a mini-trend at this Lincoln Center Festival 2017. First, there was Mohammad Al Attar’s While I Was Waiting, dealing with the intramural travails of a Damascus family during the current Syrian uprising as lorded over by Bashar Al-Assad. Following on its nipped-at heels is To the End of the Land, director Hanan Snir’s adaptation of David Grossman’s 2008 novel, brought to the John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater by the Ha’Bima National Theatre and the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv.

The assailed family involved might be termed extended. It initially consists of Ora (Efrat Ben Zur), Avram (Dror Keren) and Ilan (Amnon Wolf), all of whom meet cute when hospital patients during the 1967 Seven Day’s War. At that time—in a tale that covers something like 50 years—Ora is 16, and the men are hardly older. Eventually, offspring materialize.

Although it’s Avram who first ingratiates himself with Ora and, for laughs, rolls Ilan’s bed into Ora’s tight space when lights are supposed to be out, it’s fever-riddled Ilan whom she kisses and with whom she begins an affair that lasts and lasts.

But not without its jarring ups and downs. In a romance that’s also a bromance, Ora, Avram and Ilan play out—better yet, submit themselves to—on-again-off-again alliances that, for review purposes, may best be described as a spin on Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules et Jim, which Francois Truffaut stunningly translated to the screen.

Concentrating on the triangle pulled this way and that over the years—with Ora attempting, not completely successfully, to keep things balanced—Snir has his way with the 630-page saga. Over those pages and those years, Ora eventually insists she and Avram take a long hike through the under-siege country (hence the title) during which she fills him in on how she learned about the still-debilitating wounds he suffered—but about which he’s uninformed—during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (The trek is, of course, also a metaphor for the three characters’ road to the end of their interpersonal land.)

Also figuring into the story is Ofur, Ora’s son, a solder in the later Lebanon War. For those who don’t know the novel, just who is Ofer’s biological father and who is his spiritual father won’t be revealed here. (Even those who know the novel may not know that Grossman’s son Uri was killed in battle during the book’s writing.)

For this Ha’Bima-Cameri Theatre production—Ha’Bima, founded in 1905 and known as Habima or Habimah in earlier New York visits)—Snir employs, as he often does, story theater practices. (The origin of Story Theater is usually credited to Chicago’s Viola Spolin and son Paul Sills and was a pistol-hot stateside trend in the 1960s.)

The stage is a three-sided white box—furnished only by beds, tables and several chairs—created by set designer Roni Toren. In order to represent nature, about which Grossman is descriptively generous, the actors making up the busy supporting cast (and the musicians among them) simply draw school-children-like representations on the walls with black pencils.

So Snir adapts Grossman to the stage but is intent on his work being absorbed as storytelling rather than as a play. His notion works most of the time, certainly when Ben Zur, Keren and Wolf are lending every ounce of their intense talents to Ora, Avram and Ilan. The anguish they expend in the two-act piece is extraordinary.

What Snir also incorporates throughout is Ori Vidislavski’s music, played by ensemble members Rinat Matatov, Nir Barak, Eldar Brantman and Vitaly Podolsky. Which means that Grossman readers have to hear music in their heads should they be so inclined, but there’s plenty here (too much?) that doesn’t have to be imagined.

Very once in a while, Snir’s storytelling, as opposed to Grossman’s, becomes repetitive. Ora, Aram and the players are required to do what seems like miles of backpack walking and running in large circles to cover their trip to the literal and symbolic end of the trail. Sometimes, the musical interludes become a mite overenthusiastic. Story Theater should always be once-upon-a-time smooth, never twee.

Nonetheless, when the last sprint has been concluded, the way in which war exacerbates the already complex quality of love and the teasing, taunting and trashing of family life is movingly, possibly even memorably rendered.

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