PLATONIC THEATER DATE REVIEW: Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Hard Love’ pushes boundaries

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, we attended the same matinee performance of The Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s “Hard Love” on Thursday, April 26, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here is our joint review:

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Inga Wilson and Drew Parker in Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Hard Love.”

Love stories nearly always focus on individuals struggling to overcome obstacles in order to be together, yet Motti Lerner’s “Hard Love,” now being staged by The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, focuses on lovers who can’t seem to get out of their own way.

This is for many reasons, of course – religious beliefs, and their role in one’s sense of identity being chief among them. The play begins with novelist Zvi (Drew Parker) coming to visit his ex-wife Hannah (Inga R. Wilson) in an Orthodox Jewish section of Jerusalem. Though the two haven’t seen each other since their painful, teenage divorce twenty years earlier, and they’ve each remarried – Zvi renounced his faith and moved to Tel Aviv in the interim – Zvi’s son and Hannah’s daughter have recently met and fallen in love. But Hannah wants Zvi to discourage the courtship.

So the meeting is ostensibly about their children, but it inevitably ends up being more about Zvi and Hannah and their unresolved, complicated feelings for each other, as Zvi faces another divorce, and Hannah continues to care for her elderly second husband. Then, in the second act, when Hannah travels to Tel Aviv a couple of months later to visit Zvi in his apartment, the two are forced to hash out both the things that keep drawing them together and the things that will forever keep them apart.

DC: I think the best way to describe the show is that it feels like a grudge match between two highly skilled tennis players, with each serve and volley designed to one-up and severely cripple their opponent. As such, it makes this show very difficult to get into the specifics, because to do so would give way too much away – and the fun of this show (if you can call it that) is watching the revelations that come from watching these two players work their strategies.

JM: My question late in the show was, are there too many revelations? These are people in a tough situation, but after a certain point, it felt like we were watching them talk in circles. Painful, emotionally fraught circles.

DC: Yes, and I felt a bit battered by the end. It certainly takes them AND us on one hell of a roller coaster ride that has the potential to go on forever.

JM: And you don’t have that “We made it!” kind of post-rollercoaster rush of relief. It’s more the queasy kind of “I don’t feel so good” response. Plus, when something’s this emotionally brutal, I leave asking myself, what do we take from this?

DC: I walked away thinking, “I hope these two are finally finished with this nonsense.”

JM: They can’t be! That’s the thing. We can’t get into specifics without giving revelations away, but that’s part of what makes this such a tough go, even once a final decision is made.

DC: Yes. It took twenty years to get to this point, and unfortunately, you KNOW this isn’t going to be their last battle. I’m not sure I’d be up for a sequel if it’s as grueling as this one.

JM: As hard as it is to watch these characters’ emotional face-off for 90 minutes, I can only imagine what Parker and Wilson go through for each performance.

DC: Exactly. If the audience feels bruised and battered, so must they. But damn, they’re good!

JM: They are. And their performance in these complicated, meaty roles is probably the best thing about “Hard Love.” The script itself, well, I have a few issues. But Parker and Wilson do their absolute damnedest with the material they have to work with.

DC: I was impressed right from the beginning when, for probably the first 10 minutes or so, Wilson never looks directly at Parker. How can you talk to and interact with someone only a few feet away and NOT look at them? Even by accident?

JM: It’s true-to-life in those kind of circumstances, of course, and I was impressed, too, with her dialect work and physical choices. So much was conveyed by the way she held her body and moved around that claustrophobic apartment. Everything she says and does in that first act is almost an apology for her presence, for the argument she feels compelled to make, etc. She’s been taught to be present but largely invisible all her life, and we see her chafe against that with the appearance of Zvi on the scene.

DC: Yet there’s that spark she still feels for him that slips through every now and then. It’s a much-nuanced performance with tons of subtleties woven throughout.

JM: Zvi’s more overt with his feelings for Hannah, but given how “non” she’s dedicated to being in her own life, I struggled to understand what still appealed to him about her in this cloistered life. I know it’s wrapped up in his childhood, his past identity, and his memories, but it’s still something we have to take on faith.

DC: I’m not sure if he was attracted to HER so much as he was the idea of taking her away from what she held most dear.

JM: Which ties in all the comparisons he keeps making between his mother, who’d committed suicide, and Hannah. He seems bent on “saving” Hannah, more than loving her for who she is. Which undercuts so much of what’s said and what happens. And Zvi’s got other contradictions, too. Parker definitely had his hands full with this role. I mean, upon having what seems like a heart-to-heart with Hannah in act two, Zvi has a phone call with his latest young-girlfriend-of-the-month that reveals that neither we, nor Hannah, should trust what he says.

DC: But Hannah shouldn’t be trusted, either. She’s equally manipulative. I suspect the result of what happens at the end of Act One COULD be the result of just how far she might go to get what she wants.

JM: It almost feels like director Linda Ramsay-Detherage should hand out scorecards before the lights go down.

DC: (Laughs) That’s why I referred to it as a tennis match. Who’s winning changes with every volley, and all the while our heads keep spinning from one side to the other.

JM: But there’s no clear person to root for in this fight. They’re both deeply flawed, which is realistic but inevitably frustrates you as an audience member. How can I get invested on more than an intellectual level if both of these people can’t be straight with each other?

DC: I actually left feeling sorry for both of them, in a way. Apart they might be nice people, but together they are like water and oil, and neither sees it. So their unhappiness is pretty much assured. Oh, the games people play!

JM: I suppose it’s kind of revolutionary in a sense to go against the audience’s desires and expectations of how a “love story” is supposed to go. This ultimately leaves me “appreciating” the play’s artistry at an arm’s-length distance, though, more than being shaken or moved by it.

DC: Agreed. I thought Ramsey-Detherage staged it quite well and got amazing performances out of her two actors.

JM: Let’s talk about the tech contributions to the show. First, I’ll just say that sound designer Matt Lira’s choice to play familiar pop ballads sung in Hebrew during the breaks was subtly effective in setting the mood.

DC: I was about to mention that, too! That was very creative. Several times I found myself thinking, “Is that…?” And yes, it was – but in Hebrew!

JM: A really nice touch. And Elspeth Williams’ set design, furnished with Harold Jurkiewicz’s props, offered a nice contrast with regard to the very different lives that Zvi and Hannah have been living.

DC: Yes, both apartments certainly served to explain the different circumstances in which each lived. Neil Koivu’s lighting certainly added to the mood as well.

JM: I noticed Mary Copenhagen’s costumes most with Wilson, who must dress so modestly and plainly as an Orthodox woman. I think these costumes likely helped Wilson achieve that hemmed-in physicality I referred to earlier, where she’s, in many ways, trapped by her own life.

DC: Yes, she certainly LOOKED the part. Zvi just needed to look modern day. And he did.

JM: Though the overall experience of “Hard Love” was harrowing, I will say that I don’t often see a play that takes religion seriously as something important in the lives of its characters, and I appreciated that. It’s a topic that’s so rich with potential conflict, particularly in regard to people’s sense of themselves, but I think playwrights, and we as theatergoers, tend to shy away from it because it’s such an uncomfortable, deeply personal subject. So I appreciated the playwright’s courage in tackling something so tricky.

DC: Me, too. Religion is one of a handful of topics that in past years no one was supposed to talk about in public because of how explosive the discussion could become – and “Hard Love” is a pretty good example of just how true that is.

JM: And it’s WITHIN a single religion!

DC: Yes. The believer and the doubter. This is a “family squabble,” religion-wise. But every religion has them, which makes it universal.

JM: The story reminded me of one of my favorite punchlines: two Jews, three opinions!

DC: This Catholic won’t touch that punchline! (Laughs)  But I will offer my opinion: Personally, I think Zvi HATES God, and his revenge against Him is an attempt to destroy Hannah’s faith, too. What didn’t make sense to me, then, was if Zvi was successful, the end result would be a woman he no longer recognized. And what would happen then? I don’t think he’d be happy. Nor would she.

JM: Oh, Don. Neither of these people was ever going to be happy.

DC: True, true. So I guess I should ask: Ultimately, did you LIKE the play or not?

JM: Well, … it’s hard for me to recommend it outright. Not because of the work of the artists involved, which is solid, but because of the script. I felt used up upon leaving, which, to my mind, runs counter to thinking more deeply about the issues raised by the play. Did YOU like the play?

DC: Despite the bruises and the whiplash, I found the plot more complicated than it needed to be, but ultimately it was the excellent work of the director and actors digging through all of the muck and making as much sense of it as possible that I found appealing.

JM: I think that “more complicated than it needed to be” is my sticking point. The play felt like a looooong 90 minutes, and that’s because watching each volley of this intense tennis match was exhausting. It was hard for me to take it all in when constantly shifting agendas and so many bits of information are coming at you.

DC: So YES, Linda, where IS that scorecard Jenn asked for?

JM: I think it’s an idea that’s time has come.

DC: Just make sure you get the credit! 

Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Hard Love” plays through May 6 at the JCC, 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield, MI. For showtimes and ticket information, visit https://www.jettheatre.org/.

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