From grief to healing, LA play chronicles journey of bereaved Israeli mother
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'There are so many parts of our lives -- wounds – and so few pieces in the theater aiming directly at healing'

From grief to healing, LA play chronicles journey of bereaved Israeli mother

'The Blessing of a Broken Heart,' adapted from Sheri Mandell's memoir of her son's unresolved murder, offers universal hope

Lisa Robins in 'The Blessing of a Broken Heart' at The Braid in Santa Monica, California, on February 18, 2016 (Zachary Andrews)
Lisa Robins in 'The Blessing of a Broken Heart' at The Braid in Santa Monica, California, on February 18, 2016 (Zachary Andrews)

When actor Lisa Robins assumes the role of Sherri Mandell in the staged production of “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” she not only brings to life the pain of a mother whose son and classmate were murdered 15 years ago by terrorists near the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, but also conveys her remarkable resilience in light of the tragedy.

“I am overwhelmed by seeing our story staged,” says Mandell, the author of her eponymous memoir and a Times of Israel blogger whose writing still echoes those dark days. “It’s terrifying and exhilarating, because it is a recognition of the pain and transformation we have experienced.”

The play, which received the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, premiered last week in Los Angeles at The Braid, a new performance and art space in Santa Monica supported by the Jewish Women’s Theater.

As Mandell, Robins experiences the horrific tragedy on stage. Though she is brokenhearted, she is not broken. From crippling grief, she journeys, with the support of other Israeli mothers, to hope and healing.

Seth and Sherri Mandell with Koby (center) months before his death (Courtesy the Mandell family)
Seth and Sherri Mandell with Koby (center) months before his death (Courtesy the Mandell family)

“I hope that the audience of ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ is able to laugh and cry and leave having their own healing,” says Robins, whose many credits include staring at LA’s Geffen Playhouse in “Love, Loss and What I Wore” by Nora and Delia Ephron, and in Michael Elias’ “Catskill Sonata.”

The show’s director and playwright, Todd Salovey, associate artistic director at the San Diego Repertory Theater, decided to adapt the National Jewish Book Award winner for the stage after discovering the book on a friend’s shelf.

Though she is brokenhearted, she is not broken

“I opened the book and couldn’t stop reading. Sherri’s language and her imagery were like a bolt of lightning; in just two paragraphs I was riveted,” Salovey recalls. “There are so many parts of our lives — wounds – and so few pieces in the theater aiming directly at healing. This is one of the exceptions.”

A one-woman show, the material consists solely of Mandell’s compelling language — largely from the book but also other contexts. The simple sand-colored set evokes the area around Tekoa south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills where the two 13-year-old boys, Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran, were killed in May 2001. They were discovered stoned to death in a cave whose image is occasionally projected on stage.

The settlement of Tekoa, south of Jerusalem (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
The settlement of Tekoa, south of Jerusalem (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The set doubles as the streets of America, Jerusalem and the Western Wall, where Mandell prays for the son she knows will never return. When she asks for a sign that he is okay, it arrives in a night sky that leaves audiences with a chill. The content settles upon viewers as “authentically Mandell,” a certified counselor who now co-directs the Israel-based Koby Mandell Foundation, which operates programs for bereaved families in her son’s memory.

Before the play reveals the boys’ deaths, however, it shares Mandell’s personal history, her visit to Israel, meeting and marrying her husband, Seth, and creating a life filled with love for her new baby, Koby, and more children that followed — all with engaging emotion and conviction.

‘She has gone on a very profound journey – from darkness to meaning and purpose’

“She expresses the mystical, challenging and uplifting parts of her story in beautiful poetic language that touches the heart,” Salovey tells The Times of Israel. “She has gone on a very profound journey – from darkness to meaning and purpose. So I think the material is very engaging and very uplifting, and tells a very truthful story of life in Israel today.”

Salovey studied Mandell’s work extensively to make sure the play is true to her convictions, as well as her way of speaking.

“Her words and her story have incredible beauty,” Salovey says. “I’m interested in stories about life in Israel, the beauty and challenges. I also had an idea that this piece could reach across cultures and offer Jewish approaches to people who have experienced challenges and loss and are looking for inspiration and meaning.”

From left to right, producer Ronda Spinak, actor Lisa Robins and playwright/director Todd Salovey (Photo by Zachary Andrews)
From left to right, producer Ronda Spinak, actor Lisa Robins and playwright/director Todd Salovey (Photo by Zachary Andrews)

 

With the aim of healing amidst the broader community, JWT’s artistic director and the show’s producer, Ronda Spinak, hosts post-play discussions with the cast, artistic creators, community leaders and trauma experts after each Sunday performance.

“This life-affirming play demonstrates a vibrancy of the human spirit and how to find meaning from the depths of darkness by transforming grief into kindness,” Spinak says. “We hope to share ‘Blessings’ with audiences that include those who have been personally touched by tragedy.”

‘This life-affirming play demonstrates a vibrancy of the human spirit’

“Witnessing growth and transformation of a character on stage is always powerful, and if the story is told right, empowering. No two stories are the same, but Sherri’s story, which isn’t about a fictional character, but a real person, who shares in detail her truth, moves us all,” Spinak says. “This play inspires us to find a way through grief and turn our life toward the good.”

While the play is specific to Mandell’s tragedy, it also offers universal hope.

“The most important message is when any of us are facing a personal test, although it might be painful, it offers an incredible opportunity to learn and grow,” Salovey adds. “We can’t take away pain and insecurity, but what we can do is be there for each other and be with each other.”

Lisa Robins (far right) assumes the role of Sherri Mandell (left) in playwright/director Todd Salovey's 'The Blessing of a Broken Heart.' (Zachary Andrews)
Lisa Robins (far right) assumes the role of Sherri Mandell (left) in playwright/director Todd Salovey’s ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart.’ (Zachary Andrews)

As Mandell sees it, Salovey and Spinak continue to transform the story so that “others carry our story with us,” she says. “In that way it becomes a story of the Jewish people, a story of grief and recovery and hope and love and healing.”

Still, at times, Mandell finds the production challenging emotionally.

“The play is done so well that even though it’s hard for me, I enjoy the way it is shaped,” she says. “I have to leave for the most painful parts because they are too traumatic for me, but the production is absolutely a gift.”

“The Blessing of a Broken Heart” will run until March 20 at The Braid in Santa Monica, California.

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