David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa” takes its name from the path in Jerusalem that Christ traveled to his crucifixion. It translates as “Way of Sorrow,” an apt title for a play that maps Hare’s painful journey through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The English playwright traveled to Israel in 1997 to research a play about the British administration of Palestine in the 1930s-’40s but wound up writing a solo show about his trip, his impressions of the people he met and his insights into the conflicts that shaped the then-50-year-old state of Israel. He himself performed the work in London and New York and won a Drama Desk award for best solo performance in 1999, despite the fact that his only other acting experience was a school production of “A Man for All Seasons.”
Robert Dorfman takes on Hare’s role in a thoughtful production directed by Raye Birk for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Over the course of 90 minutes, Dorfman conjures a variety of locales and people while moving around Michael Hoover’s spare set, which consists of a couple of tables and a wall of file boxes, augmented only by Paul Epton’s occasional lighting effects and Anita Kelling’s sound design.
Hare’s text is filled with sensory impressions of the places he travels and the people he meets, and Dorfman ably captures the visual quality of the playwright’s language. He summons an air of mischievous disbelief when he describes a settlement as having an air of suburban normality more characteristic of Bel Air or Santa Barbara than of the dangerous frontier he had expected. His evocation of the Golden Dome of the Rock and its rich religious significance for both Muslims and Jews is rendered with poignant emotion, while his visit to Israel’s Holocaust museum conjures wrenching anguish.
Equally fascinating are the people he encounters, from Eran Baniel, co-director of a “Romeo and Juliet” in which Jews played the Montagues and Palestinians the Capulets, to Shulamit Aloni, a former Knesset member who believes nothing but bloodshed lies ahead after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Birk, in his directorial debut, modulates the pace and tone of this talky play to keep it from devolving into a lecture.
“Via Dolorosa” runs the risk of appearing dated in its focus on events and situations that were headline news 20 years ago, in a pre-9/11 world. This strong production, however, reminds its audiences that Hare’s focus on the perils of religious extremism is, if anything, even more pertinent.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.