In “Nathan the Wise,” the titular Nathan tells a tale of a unique opal ring which, when worn, causes the wearer to be beloved by both God and men. After passing through generations of owners, it is in the possession of a man with three sons. Unable to decide which son to give it to, he orders two additional rings made, indistinguishable from the original. All three are presented to the sons and they must figure out among themselves who has the true ring based on their behavior towards the other two. Yet now we could say there may be yet a fourth ring, namely the play itself. Such is the power of “Nathan the Wise” as performed at Theater J, produced in association with the Folger Theatre and directed with brilliance by Adam Immerwahr.
…enthusiastically recommend this brilliant production with its enormous relevance and performances…
Set in Jerusalem in 1192 immediately after the Third Crusade, the play centers on Nathan, a rich Jewish merchant, with a reputation for wisdom. He arrives home from a trading trip to find his city under the control of the Muslim sultan, Salah ad-Din. Nathan is elated to learn that his household, including his beloved daughter Rachel, has survived the recent fighting, though a fire almost claimed the lives of all. The peace between the sultan and Richard the Lion-hearted is fragile, with people of ill-will desiring to see fighting re-start in the name of the “True Faith.” The sultan is in a financially precarious situation and wonders if he can persuade Nathan to lend him money to keep the city afloat until taxes can be collected. Adding to Nathan’s concerns is his daughter’s preoccupation with the handsome, but impulsive, Christian Templar Knight who has saved her life.
Eric Hissam is magnificent as Nathan. He himself is almost magical in the way he is able to convey simultaneously a man who is at once a shrewd trader, a loving father, a concerned citizen, and, most miraculously of all, a witty and light-hearted man of faith. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is similarly excellent as a commanding yet likable Salah ad-Din, as is Sara Corey, who portrays the sultan’s clear-sighted sister. Sarab Wadia, as the humorous character Al-Hafi, also provides an engaging introduction to the milieu and to the other characters. The Templar Knight is portrayed energetically by Drew Kopas. Em Whitworth is compelling as Nathan’s intelligent, if naïve, daughter.
The original play is wonderful in that it shows how persons of good will can, with some effort, bridge their diverse backgrounds and achieve understanding despite their cultural differences, even when opposed by people promoting prejudice and intolerance. Yet this production, to the delight of the audience, is most successful at showing the unexpected joy which follows once such understanding is realized.
Indeed, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s original script, written in 1779, has been widely admired for its views on tolerance and its engaging parable of the three rings hinted at above, but it is also regarded as somewhat didactic and more concerned with the philosophy of the Enlightenment than with engaging drama. The Theater J company has made the play lively, humorous, and utterly relevant to our own times, in which the lure of particularism encourages us to forget our common humanity. In contrast, the characters of this production emerge as being likable and interesting people for whom we come to care and with whom we wish to spend more time for their own sake. All of this is aided by occasional fourth-wall-breaking humor.
The stage is simultaneously simple and yet elaborate, with an orange-red, exotic touch which sometimes represents Nathan’s home and sometimes the palace of the sultan, both convincingly. Through the windows we see distinct features of Jerusalem such as the Dome of the Rock. With settings, costuming, and props approaching the minimalist, we are convincingly placed in the heart of a very multi-cultural milieu of the city of Jerusalem so treasured by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The sets are executed brilliantly by scenic designer Paige Hathaway and resident props designer Pamela Weiner.
Although this is not a typical staging (and we are not sure we can completely agree with the Folger’s promotion that this is a “Shakespeare-styled Fable”), there is also material for purists who are familiar with Lessing and Enlightenment culture. There is a significant amount of chess-playing, reminding us of a famous painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim of Lessing the playwright at chess with Moses Mendelssohn, a figure of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment (and grandfather of the Romantic Era composer Felix Mendelssohn). Indeed, Lessing based the character of Nathan on his friend Moses Mendelssohn.
I enthusiastically recommend this brilliant production with its enormous relevance and performances which—to quote Lessing himself—bring out the play’s “hidden virtue to render [it] beloved of God and man.”
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes.
“Nathan the Wise” runs through April 10, 2022 at Theater J in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For more information and tickets, you can call the box office at (202) 777-3210 or visit here. Tickets for both in-person and streaming are available.