Stage actors must be the epitome of professionalism. They are forced to perform their task under an array of varying distractions – faulty props, technical malfunctions, even errant cell phone calls (for shame). But what about dealing with the weight of the material?  By the curtain call for the stunning world premiere of “Return to Haifa,” actors Daniel Cantor, Anish Jethmalani, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Diana Simonzadeh appeared emotionally drained. This powerfully written play by M.E.H. Lewis (Jeff Award winner for “Fellow Travellers”) should ensure, night in and night out, the actors will wind up on the verge of collapse.

This Next Theatre production is thoroughly affecting in its refusal to shy away from the ugly truths of history. The tremendous acting brings us into the lives of two decimated families with conflicting cultures, so much so that we find ourselves somewhat forgiving of their hateful diatribes (even as we cringe) because of the pain they have suffered. 

“Return to Haifa” tells the story of the birth of the Jewish state of Israel, spanning the years from 1947 to 1967, through the eyes of a soon-to-be-exiled Palestinian couple, Ishmail (Mr. Jethmalani) and his wife Safiyeh (Ms. Simonzadeh), and a Jewish couple, Jakob (Mr. Cantor) and Sarah (Ms. Nofs-Snyder), who move into their recently abandoned house after spending much of WWII in a concentration camp. 

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the most contentious, ongoing struggles in the world. Who is the rightful owner of the house?  The land of Israel?  What about the child left behind as the Israeli police force Ishmail and Safiyeh from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers?

The play raises maddeningly difficult questions while, as in life, offering no easy answers.

Director Jason Southerland creates an omnipresent tension within a truly haunting atmosphere. From the dueling Hebrew and Arabic slogans spray-painted on the brick edges of the stage to the silhouetted house by scene designer Tom Burch, it is clear that the fringes of society – religious and nationalistic zealots – will decide the outcome for the majority yearning for peace because of their will to kill and intimidate. 

Warm yellow lighting by Jared Moore emphasizes hope at the outset, as Ishmail and Jakob try to remain positive that the Arabs and the Jews will be able to coexist.  They fade to blue as the Arabs are forcibly moved to a Ramallahan refugee camp and the Jewish citizens must confront the reality of the situation surrounding their return.  

When the borders are opened 19 years later, and Ishmail and Sayifeh return to Haifa, what they find at their former home will devastate them. 

The play includes overwhelming symbolic gestures – fathers handing guns to their sons – and one of the most gut-wrenching monologues I have ever heard, spoken by Sarah as she defends herself through revealing her past.

Perhaps the most telling character is that of Moishe (Miguel Cohen), an Arab boy raised as a Jew, becoming an Israeli soldier who despises Arabs and therefore, himself.  His counterpart, Khalid (Todd Garcia) defies his father by skipping school to join a Muslim separatist group.

At the end, still in our seats, I gave my mother a hug as she brushed the tears from her face.  Mr. Jethmalani looked down and smiled with pride.  The success of productions with subject matter this intense is validated by raw, emotional responses from the audience – and the Next Theatre’s show hits a nerve.

 “Return to Haifa” runs through March 7 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street.  For tickets, call 847-475-1875 or visit www.nexttheatre.org.