RI playwright delves into Middle East controversy with play at Wilbury


The classic 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” explored what was then the taboo subject of interracial dating and marriages. Now, 51 years later, a new play by Rhode Island playwright Lawrence Goodman delves into another controversial subject relating to romance: dating between Jews and Arabs.

“Heresy,” which will be presented four times, starting tonight (April 20) during the Wilbury Group Theatre in Providence’s Festival of New Works, explores what happens when, similar to what unfolded in the Oscar-winning movie starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, a daughter makes an announcement about her social life that her parents are less than thrilled about. Bitterness and recriminations then leave the family relationships in tatters after her parents find out that she’s also withdrawn her support for Israel.

Goodman, 47, describes the plot:

“When Hannah Liebowitz arrives home from college for summer break, she has a surprise for her parents: She’s dating a Palestinian. Hannah’s parents, secular and liberal Jews, aren’t fazed until Hannah also reveals she’s turned against Israel. The Liebowitzes are suddenly at war with each other over what it means to be a Jew and how much loyalty they owe Israel. The relationship between Hannah and her mother takes a disastrous turn.

“ ‘Heresy’ is a play for our times about a family divided by politics and the fine line between religious identity and tribalism. It shows what can happen when you dare to question the beliefs of your family, society or religion.”

Goodman, who has written a number of plays staged in Boston and Rhode Island, has lived in Rhode Island for 15 years and is a resident of Providence. He is collaborating with veteran, award-winning director Daniel Gidron, an Israeli native who’s lived in Providence for two years. Goodman talked about his motivation in writing the play in an email interview with The Jewish Voice:

JV: How did you come to write the play and what motivated you? Is the play based on any real-life situations that you faced or ripped from the headlines of the last few decades?

Goodman: Several years ago, I noticed that many of my friends didn’t discuss Israel. They would debate the Iraq War, Obama, the quality of Starbucks coffee and paper vs. plastic endlessly, but somehow never got around to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wanted to write a play in which a secular, liberal Jewish family would be forced to discuss the issue. In this case, it’s because Hannah, the college-age daughter, returns home for the summer (and is) anti-Zionist.  

JV: The play showcases some of the thornier issues facing Jews worldwide and in Israel today. What are your expectations for the play with respect to possibly healing those positions? 

Goodman: I wrote the play first to entertain and second to ask some hard questions. Dayenu. 

JV: You have made Hannah’s parents both secular and liberal Jews. Which parent did you make which type of Jew, and why? 

Goodman: Both parents are secular and Jewish, by which I mean they define themselves as cultural Jews. It’s less about the religion, more about the intellectualism, shared sense of history and, of course, food. To what extent this is still “real” Judaism is an open question in the play. 

JV: Given the sensitive nature of the play, what type of Jew do you consider yourself, and do you have any thoughts on how American Jews can become even a bit more united in these turbulent times?

Goodman: I’m like the Jews in this play, secular and liberal. I feel part of a great tradition of writers who’ve used theater and fiction to explore what it means to be a Jew in America. 

JV: Will Jews ever be united on any issue? There are real ethical, political and religious differences between Jews on the subject of Israel. How we get beyond them depends a lot on what happens in the Middle East. I think we’re all hoping for a breakthrough that will allow us to find common ground again. 

JV: Israel will be marking the 70th anniversary of its modern-day founding. Have you been to Israel, and what role, if any, did that upcoming milestone for Israel figure into your decision to write the play? 

Goodman: This is a play about the relationship between American Jews and Israel – how much loyalty do we owe Israel? How do we reconcile our political values with what’s happening in the Middle East? Can you still be Jewish if you oppose Israel? What role does self-hatred play in informing our views of Israel? The play doesn’t take a stance on who’s right: Israel or the Palestinians. All sides are presented.

(Goodman said he’s been to Israel twice: His Bar Mitzvah was at the Western Wall, and he returned two years later.)

Besides “Heresy,” the other plays in the 2018 Festival of New Works are by Brien Lang, Laura Neill and Phonenyx Williams. Lang’s play is “Ubu Roi,” adapted by him and Williams; it ran earlier in April. Neill’s play, “Skin and Bones,” directed by Logan Serabian, opened April 19 and will run through April 28. Tickets for all productions range from $10 to $20 and are available only at the theater’s box office at 40 Sonoma Court in Providence.

LARRY KESSLER is a freelance writer who can be reached at lkessler1@comcast.net.

Arts, Wilbury