We have never had a war fought on our homeland. Still, every Labor Day when you hear the sonic booms in the clear blue sky, you halfway wonder if the bombing has begun. No, it turns out it's just the Cleveland Air Show's annual flyovers.
But in other countries, such as Israel, those deafening whooshes of jets generate a much more visceral reaction in the citizens below. And so it is in On The Grill, now at Dobama Theatre. Set in a well-established kibbutz in northern Israel, the play by Israeli actor Dror Keren does a workmanlike job of capturing casual family conversation, along with the lurking unease of fear that comes from living in that part of the world.
But this translation by Michael Ezrachi is less successful in exploring some of the trenchant issues it brings up, including the intergenerational conflicts among this family and the particular devastation of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The play begins with the words of Gizela, the grandmother of the clan, who relates her journey to Israel in the late 1940s. As narrated by Dorothy Silver, it's a powerful moment when Gizela saw the new homeland for Jews from the deck of the ship, glittering like diamonds in the night. She then settled into this kibbutz, living in a collective where most decisions were made by committee vote.
That's where her son Zvika was raised, and where he married his wife Rochale. On this day, they are hosting other family members for an Independence Day celebration, immediately on the heels of the Israeli Memorial Day. This is an occasion observed with a feast of grilled meat, which good-natured Zvika is preparing on his backyard hibachi.
Soon we meet those other folks who have gathered. Zvika and Rochale's son, Mordi, is visiting for the first time in four years, and has brought his German partner Johanna. Mordi is suffering from PTSD, triggered by his participation in a previous war, and he starts hitting the whiskey from the moment he arrives. Another son, Gilad, shows up in full battle gear, since he's taken off some time from the current conflict. His mother Tirtza (Rocky Encalada) is both delighted to see him and worried about what might come next as she peers up into the sky when fireworks and jets pierce the calm.
And yes, there are still more people in attendance. An old rebel Avinoam (Michael Regnier), father of Tirtza, is sucking down beers while Raja, a health aide from India, is caring for frail Gizela. And to top it off, Mordi's former lover Alona (Olivia Scicolone) shows up because, why not.
Clearly, the title of the play has a double meaning since these people are not just grilling steaks. They're being tested and grilled as they try to craft a safe and productive life in the face of threatening forces all around them.
Setting the play at a barbecue offers one advantage, and some definite challenges. On the plus side, it's interesting to have all the characters arrayed before you, as they would be at such an event. On the other hand, many of the dialogue scenes feel stagey, even though director Leighann DeLorenzo does her best to avoid that sensation.
Part of the challenge involves a 100-minute one-act play that has 10 characters that must be dealt with in some way. Even a rough mathematical calculation indicates, if their time in the script was distributed evenly, they'd each get a 10-minute slice. Allowing for the need to make dialogue sound realistic, that isn't much time to delve deeply into serious issues.
As Zvika, David Vegh conveys the sense of a man comfortable with his life in the kibbutz, but struggling with how to deal with his troubled son. In his first scene, he relates how he picked up his meat for the barbecue from an Arab butcher in village nearby. The butcher, we're told, played a joke on Zvika that ended with the two men hugging —and Zvika getting some blood on his shirt from the butcher's apron. That is one of many potentially intriguing moments that gets plowed under and unexamined as the play progresses.
In the linchpin role of Rochale, Juliette Regnier works diligently to keep all the parts spinning in the same direction, but we learn very little about her personally. The same is true of Johanna (Emily Viancourt), who is mostly relegated to standing in and around the perimeter of the proceedings — as is Alona.
Playwright Keren has the right instinct as he raises issues without providing easy answers. We don't want pat solutions, but we do yearn for more layered and complex questions. In On The Grill, we are teased by a number of profound questions that are only touched upon in brief. As a result, when "the call" comes and Gilad is summoned back to duty, there's a hollow feeling that so much has been left unsaid.
These days, all of us are "on the grill" as the basic human rights of refugee infants, toddlers and others are being violated in our own country. So when our barbecues light up this Fourth of July, one hopes we'll celebrate our Independence Day with steak, whiskey ... and political action.