‘Returning to Haifa’ offers personal views of Jews, Palestinians in conflict  

L-R, Jacob Henrie-Naffaa, Diala Al-Abed, Lijesh Krishnan and Amal Bisharat appear in Golden Thread Productions’ local premiere of “Returning to Haifa.” (Courtesy Najib Joe Hakim)

To introduce a season of work dedicated to the Palestinian people, Golden Thread Productions wisely chose the West Coast premiere of “Returning to Haifa.” During these polarizing times, a play in which Jewish and Palestinian characters, all beautifully humanized, meet in tense circumstances is a gift. 

The play is adapted by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi from the 1969 novella by Ghassan Kanafani. Set in 1967 (at the time of the Six-Day War), it follows Safiyya (Amal Bisharat) and her husband Said (Lijesh Krishnan), who fled Haifa during the Nakba (the Arab term for the catastrophe, the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war), as they decide to revisit their old house during a break in travel restrictions in Israel. 

Golden Thread Productions’ “Returning to Haifa” features, from left, Jacob Henrie-Naffaa, Lijesh Krishnan and Diala Al-Abed. (Courtesy Najib Joe Hakim)

In potent flashbacks to their escape in 1948, we see the pair portrayed as young newlyweds (by Jacob Henrie-Naffaa and Diala Al-Abed), sort of alter-egos to their present selves, and we witness the full horror of their frantic escape and a particularly enormous sacrifice they made. 

Their return visit, where a Jewish woman (Michelle Navarrete, particularly touching in a powerful monologue)—a Holocaust refugee from Poland—now lives in their old home with her adult son (Henri-Naffaa again), is just as excruciating and painful as you might expect—but more so. 

“We only came to look at our things,” an angry, resentful Said tells the woman. “She acts as if it’s hers,” mutters his wife. Neither wants to hear the Jewish woman’s story, which she is compelled to tell. 

L-R, Michelle Navarrete, Lijesh Krishnan and Amal Bisharat portray characters who have been displaced from their homes in “Returning to Haifa.” (Courtesy Najib Joe Hakim)

And things get more tense, more complicated. 

Played out on Potrero Stage’s tiny stage, with a beautiful set design by Carlos Aceves, it’s a complex story, with dialogue that is at times poetic, rhythmic, full of fractured sentences and blurts and interruptions.  

But, as directed by Samer Al-Saber, the actors can’t quite make the lyrical text sound natural and tend to either over-emote or deliver their lines stiffly. Nor are revealing key moments and transitions fully, theatrically realized. 

This is an affecting story, personal, political, troubling, theoretically a perfect fit for Golden Thread, America’s first theater dedicated to Middle Eastern stories. Artistic director Sahar Assaf, who took over from founder Torange Yeghiazarian, is on the right path in choosing challenging material, and it will be interesting to see what’s next for the mainstage. 

Golden Thread Productions’ “Returning to Haifa” continues through May 4 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $100 at (415) 626-4061 or goldenthread.org. 

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