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Questioning Faith

By: Mark Blankenship
Date: Jun 16, 2009


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by Mark Blankenship

You barely have to glance at the headlines to know that religion is one of our country's most provocative subjects, but if you're not religious yourself, it might be hard to appreciate why. That was true for playwright Anna Ziegler, and her interest in understanding religious commitment led her to write Dov and Ali.

The volatile play, which opens June 12 at The Cherry Lane Studio, in a production by Playwrights Realm, stages the consequences of faiths colliding in a public school. Filled with spiritual arguments and counter-arguments, Ziegler says it's intended to address our culture's ongoing debates on faith. "I was coming from that idea that it's always important to write about someone who isn't like you, to try to understand and represent a different point of view," she says.

Dov and Ali's plot is driven by a quest for mutual understanding. In a Detroit high school, Dov, a conflicted Jewish teacher, gets locked in increasingly heated debates with a Muslim student, Ali. They clash over religion's relevance to everything from child rearing to the interpretation of classic literature, and they developing a grudging respect for each other as they do.

Those arguments, however, are often just covers for their private demons. Dov is hiding his non-Jewish girlfriend from his family, and Ali is lamenting his role in the religiously motivated decision that changed his sister's life. "The big question," Ziegler says, "is what religion is supposed to mean in their lives."

Dov and Ali's seeds were planted in 2005, when Ziegler began teaching at a Jewish day school in Washington, D.C. She befriended a Muslim teacher, and she says she was shocked by the blunt questions the Jewish students would ask her friend about her beliefs.

More than that, Ziegler was surprised by the intensity of devotion at the school. "I'm Jewish, but I'm not particularly religious," she says. "I'd never been in such a homogenous community, and I'd never been around people who were so religious. I saw people who were grappling with things they wanted to do, but whose beliefs were a real barrier to that.  In the last few years, I've only just realized that for a lot of people, religion is a source of comfort, but it's also a source of great conflict. Naively, I thought it was just a way to feel happy."

Ziegler's own perspective is often embodied in Dov's Christian (and largely non-religious) girlfriend, Sonya, who argues that faith shouldn't obstruct what people know is right for their own lives. "She's a tough character because I don't want her to come across as completely naive," says Ziegler. "I want her to seem three-dimensional and not just come across as some philosophical argument." To that end, Ziegler has revised Sonya's role since Dov and Ali premiered last year in London.

The character of Ali's sister Sameh presents a different kind of challenge. Until the climactic final scenes, she hovers on the perimeter, narrating certain events and critiquing others. It's clear she's not in the "real world," but the script refrains from defining exactly how she should be interpreted. "That's been interesting," Ziegler says, "because the director, Katherine Kovner, and I interpret her differently. For me, Sameh is in Ali's head. She's the voice of guilt made real." She adds that Kovner, the co-artistic director of Playwrights Realm, sees Sameh as more of a traditional narrator.

Ziegler says disagreements like those can be invaluable, and she adds that she's been hashing out the play with Kovner and John Dias, the theater's other co-artistic director, for almost a year. "It's been helpful because they both care about the play, but they don't always agree with each other," she says. "That forces to me think about what I really want a moment to mean."

And of course, the process of collaboration, of hashing out ideas, reflects the spirit of the play itself.

more about Dov and Ali here.

Mark Blankenship