Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through May 1
In her intriguing solo-drama, writer-performer Stacie Chaiken plays archeologist Sally Jenkins, who specializes in the study of ancient DNA. As she says, “It’s easy to extract the whole gene from soft tissue, but there is never soft tissue in ancient burials. I’ve managed to replicate the material I need from infinitesimal bits of really old bone.”
Sally has just been summoned back to Pittsburgh and the bedside of her dying mother, who was a close-mouthed Holocaust survivor. Mother-daughter relations are, to put it mildly, strained. But 20 minutes after the death of her mother, Sally receives a call from Israel Antiquities summoning her to a dig in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, to examine the bones of some 4,000 year old horses. Initially, she turns down the request, but it’s sweetened with promises of large cash rewards, a suite in a luxury hotel, and a chauffeured Mercedes. So she sets out for Israel.
In Jaffa Sally soon learns that it’s not horses she’s called upon to examine, but a 4,000 year old sealed sarcophagus, of a kind never before seen in Israel. Because Jewish orthodox laws forbid conducting scientific tests on human remains, there’s a necessary pretense that the case involves animals rather than humans. And when the sarcophagus is unsealed and opened, it contains a 4,000 year-old, perfectly-preserved woman.
Sally’s work is slowed by the urgent necessity of taking steps to preserve the remains, now that they have been exposed to air. The crypt must be sealed in plastic, and its temperature reduced to below freezing. After enduring the heat of Jaffa, she must now work in sub-zero temperatures while wearing a parka.
Gradually Sally’s co-workers — David, an Israeli colonel and Rashid, her Arab-Israeli driver — reveal the real nature of her task. It seems that, based on various pieces of evidence, this may or may not be the tomb of Sarah, the wife of the Biblical patriarch Abraham and the mother of Isaac. Sally becomes increasingly intrigued with the Biblical accounts of Sarah’s life, and begins to feel a personal kinship with the ancient corpse. She herself is half-Jewish and her middle name is Sarah. Her work and her personal life become inextricably entwined, leading her to personal insights and a greater understanding of her thorny, unforgiving mother.
Sally’s next task is to determine whether there is a genetic match between the corpse and the bones in Abraham’s tomb. This provides an even greater challenge, since the bones are revered by both Jews and Palestinians and must not be tampered with. Sally must analyze them by examining and testing only the dust of the decaying bones, not the bones themselves..
Chaiken has created an intricate, multi-layered tale that combines archeology, religion, Israeli-Palestinian politics and personal issues, with each strand of the narrative reflecting back on the others. Her play deals with the complexities of Israel during the Second Intifada, her relations with her co-workers David and Rashid, and her growing relationship with the lizard she found in the bathtub of her luxury hotel: She names him/her Mo, and adopts the critter as a pet, who must be smuggled — with the help of her Israeli colleagues — back to her home in Los Angeles.
Chaiken has researched her subject deeply and meticulously, and performs her material with a brisk, humorous, no-nonsense attitude that compels belief. I had to keep reminding myself that this is a work of fiction, not a factual account, though the science is apparently real. The complicated genetics involved are not only made clear, but dramatic as well; the gradual unravelling of the DNA evidence is rendered almost magical, while the underlying emotional issues make the narrative both moving and deeply satisfying.
Director Pamela Berlin has skillfully shaped the tale, weaving together seemingly unrelated elements and working closely with Chaiken and the design and technical crew to produce a seamless piece of work. Set designer Yael Pardess has utilized the architectural features of the intimate theatre deep in the bowels of the Los Angeles Theatre Center (which are augmented with huge simulated stone arches) to create a credible and beautiful underground vault.
Matthew Johns’ lighting design, combined with projection designs by Dmitri Kmelnitsky and Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh, and the intricate sound design by Tim Labor, all combine to produce both a rich mood and a vivid picture of the genetic information.
Luis Avalos Theatre at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street, Downtown. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun.; 3 p.m.; Through May 1. No performances April 22-23. (866) 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org. Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.