Theater Review: A Railroad to Damascus

A Railroad to Damascus, By Hillel Mittelpunkt, Directed by Ilan Ronen, Habima, April 8.

A Railroad to Damascus
By Hillel Mittelpunkt
Directed by Ilan Ronen
April 8
Deeply ironic, the title slips from what might have been to the ever-receding vision of peace. Part polemic, part romance, part near-melodrama, A Railroad to Damascus uses the past to signpost the present. With his almost-customary precision, Mittelpunkt illuminates the toxic consequences of blinkered nationalism in all its unlovely manifestations.
Railroad takes place mostly in Mandatory Palestine during 1942. Rommel’s Afrika Corps threatens via Egypt. The Jews – some of them – are terrified. The British High Command is seriously considering retreat. The Arabs – some of them – openly rejoice at the imminent arrival of the Germans. Despite love, despite idealism, despite common sense, Sara (Yevgenia Dodina), her family, and her friends are caught up in the maelstrom of betrayal, fanaticism, fear, hatreds – are tossed in it like chaff.
Dodina has never given a more towering performance. She brands her Sara into the play – every passionate cell of her. As Sara’s genial, tolerant employer, the Arab lawyer Fathi, Gasan Abbas also thrills. Hilla Feldman plays Nini, Sara’s ward, with a lovely mix of heedlessness and maturity. The rest are drawn in their wake, some more ably than others, such as Tomer Ben David, whose Shlomi (Sara’s firebrand Lehi brother) is two-dimensional like the black and white Pathé newsreel that accompanies the action.
Ruth Dar bisects her set with railroad tracks, symbol of the divideamong the characters, and as she moves from 1957, the year the playbegins at, to 1942, everything goes to shades of black and white, likethe newsreel, as if to reduce the immediacy of what is happening, torelegate it to history. But that cannot work, says the play. Not then.Not now.
And a word or two: There was no Pakistan in 1942. And there are actors,native English speakers, who might better have portrayed the Britishofficers. Errors like that grate, as does the soggy ending. Thisintelligent production of a mostly powerful drama might take note.