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Arts & Music

New plays share common thread of conflict

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: May 3, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Conflict lies at the heart of three very different plays opening this week.

Politics and religion rage in Jobsite's production of the controversial drama, “Behind the Gates.” War and history collide in freeFall's staging of “John & Jen.” Stageworks' “Of Mice and Men” wrestles with social mores and the laws of friendship.

Each work demands consideration, each opens a dialogue and each tests the boundary between intellect and emotion.

The 2010 West Coast premiere of Wendy Graf's “Behind the Gates” generated more argument than applause. Graf's play questions religious fundamentalism via an American girl who joins the haredim, an ultraorthodox Jewish community in Israel. Audiences and critics voiced concern about biased cultural portrayals and the possibility of stirring further anti-Semitism.

For the first time, The Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation is working with Jobsite to produce the show.

“The Jewish Community Center is [Jobsite's] primary sponsor, and they are very brave about wanting to do the play,” said director Karla Hartley. “It doesn't show a terrific picture of the haredim. It initially talks about the beauty of orthodoxy. But you also see the flip side of the coin, which can be a very under-the-sun lifestyle. It's a play about perspective.”

In America, 17-year-old Bethany struggles with drugs, promiscuity and truancy. She transfers these extremist tendencies during a trip to Israel, where she meets a haredi rabbi who invites her into his world and helps her disappear into a new identity.

Considerate of the sensitive subject matter, Hartley and the cast have made every effort to present a balanced, truthful interpretation of Graf's work.

“It's a broad spectrum of Jews that are portrayed and we're trying to honor all perspectives. As we seek help from people in the community, some help and some will not. The JCC has been supporting us monetarily, but they also graciously talked to us about the culture. The actress playing an Arabic woman sought out a USF professor to help with pronunciation. She wouldn't have anything to do with it. We've seen both ends of that.” Hartley said.

FreeFall takes audiences back to the Vietnam War era via the musical drama, “John & Jen.” Tom Greenwald's lyrics and Andrew Lippa's music capture the mood and groove of the time, along with the book they co-authored.

Siblings John and Jen are extremely close growing up. They live in a volatile household, so Jen acts as her brother's protector. She is his guide and he comes to rely on her in that role. But as they grow older, their worldviews change, each representing the different mindsets of the period in which the story takes place. His decision to enlist critically compromises their relationship. Years later, Jen tries to recreate and rectify the past through her son, also named John.

Both big and small pictures illustrate generational conflict and how, as generations move on, they're affected by those of the past.

“The play reflects a much-broader debate at the time. You see it through the eyes of a family. It's a microcosm of the way the country was divided,” said director Eric Davis.

Simpler but no less powerful issues drive John Steinbeck's classic, “Of Mice and Men.” The title comes from a line in Robert Burns' poem, “To A Mouse.” Translated from the Scottish vernacular, it reads, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” This, too, is a common thread within all three plays.

During the Depression, best friends George and Lennie find work on a California ranch. Lennie is mental challenged but physically strong. George is bright and protective of Lennie, whose love of soft things often has bad results. They dream of owning a piece of land.

On the ranch, Lennie harms several soft things, including the wife of the boss' son, Curly. Realizing that Curly and his friends will torture Lennie for what he's done, George finds a gentler means of closure.

Race, status, morality all converge in a murky stew, where conflict is the main ingredient. But another question emerges: What do we deserve and who decides? Desolation thrives in both the question and the indefinite answer.

“You feel sad for all of these guys,” said director Richard Coppinger. “They're just so lonely. The American dream is an impossibility for them.”

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