Smart, Provocative “Via Dolorosa” Haunts (5 Stars)

Via Dolorosa, written by David Hare. Directed by  Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through January 31.


Via Dolorosa begins with the tentative entrance of the narrator, playwright David Hare, wonderfully portrayed by David Bryan Jackson. Hare is not an actor, and is shy about appearing onstage. Perhaps he is also a bit overwhelmed by the complicated territory he is about to present to the audience, the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine. At 50, Hare decides to visit the then 50-year old Israel, under the auspices of having one of his plays performed in Tel Aviv.  The people he meets during his journey are all compelling in their different, if not opposing, viewpoints. Israel is a state divided, even amongst the Jewish people.


Hare begins his trip somewhat academically – the country has yet to get under his skin – with a question: “People always say that in the West we lead shallow lives.  Our lives must be shallow because we live in countries where nobody believes in anything anymore.” The Israelis he will meet are passionate, argumentative, living in a land that demands a commitment every day, as many lament that they have nobody to defend them but themselves. He starts in Tel Aviv, which he perceives to be highly sexual and Westernized, then travels to Jaffa, the Settlements (where he stays with a an ex-pat American couple), Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah, then back to Jerusalem, where he walks the Via Dolorosa, “Way of Grief”.


The extreme and opposing characters Hare meets along his journey are remarkable.  One can draw parallels to Christian fundamentalism with the people he encounters in the Settlements, who view the Bible “not as an historical document but as a contemporary operations manual”.  Those who live there believe that God has promised this land to them, despite the fact that they feel their Arab neighbors want to kill them. In both Jaffa and Ramallah, he speaks to first a Jewish then a Palestinian, co-directors of a staged Romeo and Juliet, where the Capulets (Palestinians) and Montagues (Jews) truly hated one another. When Hare leaves Jerusalem to travel to Gaza, he likens the physical landscape of the journey as one from California to Bangladesh. 


As the narrator, David Bryan Jackson is outstanding.  In addition to Hare, Jackson has to channel an array of characters, many of them real – the novelists David Grossman and Philip Roth,  an animated and angry Shulamit Aloni – and does a credible, distinct job with each. His facial muscles tighten as he portrays the contained and rational politician Benni Begin, while letting loose as the humorous Palestinian intellectual Hussein Barghouti. He has the ability to make his field of energy small or large, depending on the individual he is playing.  This is truly a tour de force performance.


Via Dolorosa poses some intense questions – what does it mean to be Jewish?  How does one resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?  What is the point of the peace process?  None of them are resolved, which is what makes the play so interesting and troubling.  I saw it a few days ago, and it is still with me.  I suppose it will be for a very long time. For more info, go to: