If you find yourself in an intolerable situation that is not of your own making, and you see a way out, but taking it means leaving somebody else, or even your entire family, behind — do you go?
That’s the question at the heart of Mona Mansour’s The Hour of Feeling, currently playing at Actors’ Theatre in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, part of the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Beder, the aging mother of Adham, our protagonist, faced that question when her son was an infant, and unapologetically decided to go, leaving her husband and her other son in a refugee camp in Lebanon in 1948. She walked across the desert with Adham on her back, determined to give him a new and better life in her homeland, Palestine. She also burned all the old photographs of her other son, so that she would not feel the loss of him anymore (she claims). Nineteen years later, on the eve of the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors, Beder says that she still considers herself to be a refugee, and that she’s kept her bags packed. She is always ready to leave everything behind her, if she has to.
Adham, a Wordsworth scholar, happens to be in London with his new wife, delivering a lecture, when the Six-Day War breaks out. For Adham, the opportunity to escape the chaos — his peers at the university immediately start making noises about keeping him around on a semi-permanent basis due to the “conditions back home” — is an easy decision. It’s exactly the kind of thing that his mother would have wanted him to do, even though it means leaving her, specifically, behind, very likely to die, or at least to suffer yet another round of painful refugeeism. That’s how she raised him. To do anything else would erase her own sacrifice. For Adham’s wife, though, his decision makes no sense. She can’t understand a man who is capable of leaving his family behind. For her the very idea of escape is nonsensical: what has happened to her family in Palestine has happened to her, too, in a very real and immediate way, and her only priority is to get back there so that she can be with them while it happens.
“This place looks like nowhere to me,” she says.
To which he responds, “Then it suits you.”
She goes back home. He stays. Spoiler alert! Ha!
For a character to make such a ruthless, self-interested decision while maintaining the sympathy and empathy of the audience requires a very, very charming actor and a very, very seductive performance. Hadi Tabbal was not up to the task, at least not on opening night. He played Adham in a rushed, high-handed way that distanced him from the audience as surely and as quickly as he distanced himself from his wife and his mother. From his first scene, where we find him whining to his mother about her traditional village ways, I didn’t like Adham, not even a little bit. I never came around. Think: a young Arabic Woody Allen with all of the putziness but none of the humor. A man who talks that way to his mother? Bah. (And, yeah, whatever, I’m sure I talked that way to my mother when I was in my twenties, but I’m a real person, not a character in a play, so, again, bah).
It’s not always necessary to like a protagonist of a play. But I think it was probably necessary to like the protagonist of this one. Since I didn’t like the guy, I felt nothing but boredom as his moral dilemma made itself manifest. I imagine that if I had read the play, instead of watching this performance, I would have liked it a lot, though. Maybe.
The staging, as is almost always the case at Actors’ — especially for productions in the larger Pamela Brown theater — was spectacular and inventive. And there’s a simple trick with the lighting at the very end that was as memorable as anything I’ve ever seen on stage.