'Murder Of Isaac' Makes U.S. Debut

For Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, there was never a question that he would dramatize the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: It was simply a matter of how.

"It's not a choice," Lerner says. "It's not something that I do because I like to do it. It's just a feeling of responsibility. I want to be a responsible writer."

Lerner's "The Murder of Isaac" had its American premiere last month at Center Stage in Baltimore. That was more than 10 years after Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing Orthodox Jew following a rally to promote peace with the Palestinians. The play was also produced in 1999, in Germany, but has undergone substantial revisions since then. It has yet to be performed in Israel.

For Lerner, one of Israel's most prominent political playwrights, finding a way to interpret such a painful national trauma was a test of his abilities. He ultimately settled on an elaborate structure; a play-within-a-play about Rabin's murder (Isaac is an anglicized version of Yitzhak) performed by patients being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at a long-term rehabilitation center.

The result is a jarring, intentionally messy and powerful work — a plea for peace from the casualties of a seemingly endless war. Through his lead character, Binder, Lerner expresses hope for an end to violence fueled by religious fanaticism. It's a message as simple and heartfelt as John Lennon's "Imagine," and one with the potential to resonate even with audiences that know little about Rabin or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"A lot of it is very foreign and exotic, but hopefully there are reverberations that are universal," said Irene Lewis, director of "The Murder of Isaac.".

The play takes place in 1998. It begins with the patients apologizing to the audience for performing a play on a day when several soldiers were killed.

At the behest of Binder (David Margulies), a former soldier who lost a leg in the 1948 battle for Jerusalem, the patients do their best to stage the play despite the limitations posed by their injuries and psychological scars.

The rehabilitation center serves as "a metaphor for Israeli society," said Lerner, who found it freeing to strip away the filter of polite discourse while writing the patients' dialogue.

"They have a license to say everything; what we are afraid to say," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I take the liberty to assume that these people speak our subconscious."

The play-within-the-play is not a sober, just-the-facts re-enactment of Rabin's assassination; it is colored by the patients' personalities. As portrayed by Binder, a pacifist and an atheist, Rabin is more radical than the leader of a coalition government could ever be.

Does Binder represent Lerner's voice? "Almost 100 percent," Lerner said. "Binder is really my mind and my heart and my vision."

But Lerner also gives ample opportunity for the other side to be heard; the voices of those who see little possibility of coexisting peacefully with the Palestinians. He's aided by charismatic performances from Olek Krupa as the leader of the political opposition to Rabin and Jeffrey Ware and Lise Bruneau as ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe Arabs are less than human.

"If you open up violence and prejudice in its deepest forms, perhaps you can bring an audience and the world to an understanding of its roots," said Margulies, a veteran New York stage actor who plays Tony Soprano's lawyer on HBO's "The Sopranos."

Margulies and Mia Dillon, who plays Lola, a nurse at the rehabilitation center whose sons were killed in the Lebanon War of 1982, have been so impassioned by the play that they frequently attend audience discussions afterward.

Along with his pacifist message, the play conveys Lerner's reverence for Rabin, whom he first met in the early 1970s when Lerner was serving in the Israeli army. Lerner was hitchhiking, and Rabin, a former army general then moving up the political ladder, picked him up.

"For 45 minutes, he interrogated me," Lerner said. "What am I doing? Where is my unit? Who is the head of the unit, and is everything all right? He wanted to know every detail. He was a really interesting man."