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Monday, 08 April 2013 20:05

A burning passion

Written by Bob Wilcox
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A burning passion
newjewishtheatre.org / John Lamb

I think I'm not giving anything away when I suggest that when in a play set in Spain in the 15th century the Inquisition examines a priest who has married a Jewish woman and who is himself a Jew, that examination is not likely to end happily for the priest.

Such is the case in "Conviction", the play currently in a two-week run at the New Jewish Theatre. Based on actual events, the tale first was told as a novel by the Israeli writer Yonatan Ben Nachum. Playwright Orem Neeman turned it into a play, and Ami Dayan adapted it and translated it from Hebrew into English.

At the New Jewish Theatre, Dayan also performs it. He's an extremely accomplished actor. And he's given himself splendid material to work with. I admire the restraint with which the story of the priest, Andres Gonzalez, is told. We are given enough detail to know him, as he makes a confession to his former teacher. He tells his courtship of the woman who becomes his wife, in which she takes more of the lead than he, sworn to celibacy as he is, and he describes the marriage and its consummation in language that can rise to poetry. The end comes quickly, a triumph in defeat, no masochistic wallowing in the horrors of the Inquisition.

But if the priest's fate is foreordained, the play's framing story has the suspense. It begins in the 20th century. We first see Ami Dayan, the only actor in the production, as an official in the Spanish National Archives in Madrid in 1962 – and Dayan, with a jacket and glasses and his skill as an actor, makes this character a completely different individual from the priest. This official is the interrogator now. An Israeli scholar who has been doing research in the National Archives has been caught trying to sneak some material out of the archives. The material, of course, includes the confession we are about to hear. The official must turn the thief – for that is what the scholar has become – over to the police. These are Franco's police, and while the result might not be as bad as the Inquisition, it probably will not be pleasant. But if the scholar will explain to the official why he wanted this particular material, the official will arrange things, as officials in bureaucracies will do, so that the police report he has in his hands will show that no theft has occurred, the scholar can return to Israel and come back another time to complete his research. But the scholar offers no explanation. So we must wait until after we hear the priest's story before we learn the fate of the scholar.

Any one-person performance can strain one's attention span. Fine as both writing and performer are in Conviction, that does happen a time or two. The Studio Theatre at the JCC is arranged arena-style for this production, so the actor is never far from us. No set is needed, just a couple of props and some fine atmospheric lighting by Nathan Schroeder. Michele Friedman Siler designed the few costumes. Director Joe Gfaller brought together this intriguing evening.

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