The 90-minute, intermissionless play, on view at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row through this Sunday, is set in “various locations in and outside of Jerusalem and in the Dehaishe Refugee Camp for Palestinians.”
The action takes place “over a two month period of time in 2002,” according to an authorial program note, which adds that “while inspired by an actual event, the characters and events depicted in ‘Paradise’ are fiction.”
Two of the play’s five characters are young women, still in their teens. The perky, slightly argumentative Sarah (Janine Barris) is a budding photojournalist, 17.
Conspicuously fearless, even in a war zone, she has returned to Israel, the land of her birth, with her cautious, recently divorced mother, Shoshana (Carmen Roman).
Fatima (Sanaz Alexander) is an innocent, mild-mannered Arab girl, probably a year or two younger than Sarah. Seemingly content to remain hidden within her traditional, all-concealing garments, she resists the advances of the ardent Omar, who, as she points out, is her cousin and therefore not a promising romantic possibility.
Omar (Arian Moayad) counters by reminding her that her own parents were cousins. She is unpersuaded, preferring that they remain the good friends they have already become.
So described, “Paradise” seems like a warm-hearted coming-of-age comedy set against a turbulent Middle Eastern background.
In truth, it is far from that. The walls of the Kirk Theatre offer a more realistic view, even before the actual play begins its brief journey.
The stage itself bears three gigantic monoliths, each with a bench positioned before it, and each marked by two circular punctures, one above the other.
But the walls, reaching from the stage almost to the farthest reaches of the auditorium, are covered with political posters, photographs of the dead and missing, plus ample graffiti scribbled in both of the region’s dominant languages.
There is no ambivalence on the theatre’s walls, nor is there any doubt where O’Malley’s fifth and final character is concerned.
Bassam (Vaneik Echeverria) is a dedicated Arab terrorist, schooled in, among other skills, the creation and deployment of body-borne explosive devices.
Sarah’s concerned, tender-hearted mother, a schoolteacher, has a realistic view of the dangers the streets beyond her dwelling may contain. The teenager, after five years or so in the United States, neither recognizes nor fully realizes the peril lying beyond the domicile that, it seems, has been granted by the Israeli government to Shoshana, as a returning Israeli citizen.
Shoshana refers to her home as a “condo,” but to Sarah, it seems more like a prison compound within whose walls she feels entrapped and confined.
As an Irish-American playwright, directing his own work, Glyn O’Malley may, consciously or unconsciously, be drawing a kind of parallel between the torment experienced by Arab and Israeli citizens, and the anguish endured by the population of Northern Ireland in the worst days and years of the lethal conflict in that part of the world.
O’Malley stops short of making an obvious paradigmatic link between Jerusalem and Belfast.
The “actual incident” alluded to in the playwright’s program note is the story of Ayat al-Akhras, an 18-year-old Palestinian who blew herself up in Jerusalem in 2002, killing three individuals, including, beside herself, Rachel Levy, who was 17. Both girls were high school students.
The first two plays in the trilogy that O’Malley, who also directed “Paradise,” simply and efficiently, are “Concertina’s Rainbow” and “Hearbeat to Baghdad.” Both have been read and/or produced by such organizations as the Flea Theatre and the Cherry Lane Mentor Project, both in New York, with subsequent airings around the country.
“Paradise” was the subject of something of a stir in Cincinnati in 2003. The city’s Playhouse-in-the-Park had commissioned the play, and had produced it, in a version somewhat shorter than that being produced at the Kirk.
The Playhouse-in-the-Park production had been scheduled to embark upon a tour of the city’s high schools, until Cincinnati’s Muslim community intervened, complaining that they found the play to be “one-sided.”
The tour was cancelled, and playwright O’Malley went to work on a revised version of the text, coming up with the expanded version currently being performed.
The title is, of course, ironic. It has been widely reported that suicide bombers, most of whom have been, until recently, male, have been recruited by the promise of instantaneous transport to “paradise,” where they will be met by a goodly supply of virgins.
Precisely what the inducements offered to prospective suicide bombers of the female persuasion are has remained unspecified, or so it seems.
When any writer, perhaps particularly a writer for the stage, addresses a subject in which current events form a major component, it becomes necessary for him or her to make a decision involving how much the audience already knows or needs to know.
In writing “Paradise,” playwright O’Malley appears to have erred on the side of abundance, or, perhaps, generosity. Much of his play finds one pair or another of his five characters exchanging bits of information that, it’s relatively safe to assume, they already possess.
The details are, of course, really directed at the audience, and contain facts and figures that O’Malley clearly believes the audience will benefit from hearing.
One rather startling passage contains a graphically detailed description of precisely the manner in which a body bomb is installed and ultimately detonated. It’s a moment most viewers are unlikely to forget.