'Behind the Gates' plays at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood

Keliher Walsh, Annika Marks, and James Eckhouse
Keliher Walsh, Annika Marks, and James Eckhouse Ed Krieger

The play "Behind the Gates" takes place mostly in Israel after a 17-year-old girl breaks away from her self-indulgent and narcissistic parents.

When parents see their children make potentially life-threatening decisions, they suffer. Alcohol, drugs, overeating - it's a long list. When children turn a corner, they sometimes leave a mother and father remembering "to be careful what you wish for."

KPCC’s Steve Julian talks to actress Annika Marks who plays the troubled teenager, Bethany:

"She has internalized a lot of this and she's really, really angry," said Marks. "She's cutting herself, she's making herself throw up. She's just involved in all sorts of self-mutilating behaviors and self-medicating behaviors."

That reminded playwright Wendy Graf of a friend's daughter. She says the girl was overweight, incorrigible, on medication, and a runaway.

Graf made her first visit to Israel a couple years ago. The trip left her speechless one moment and outraged the next. When she returned, she spoke with the young woman's father.

"And I said, 'You've got to send her to Israel.'"

Graf's flight into Tel Aviv, and subsequent journeys throughout the country, gave her a profound sense of her heritage.

"There is no one moment. There were so many moments. I was so overwhelmed with so many feelings over the course of the trip."

A visit, for example, to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the founders of Israel signed its declaration of independence in 1948, moved her to tears.

"Then, on the other hand, I had these episodes of seeing some of these orthodox families, and I just became enraged about the way the women were."

She remembers a trip to the Dead Sea, one of the world's prime spa locations, where people would cover themselves in mud and immerse themselves in the water.

"I mean, the orthodox women were putting the mud over these long, what looked like nightgowns, because they couldn't be uncovered. And sitting out by the pool, they were all covered up, and it was a million degrees and they had 11 kids hanging on them. And the husband was just in his swimming trunks just hang out."

The trip resulted in Graf's new play, "Behind the Gates." Once Bethany decides to run away from her summer school group in Jerusalem, she discovers a rabbi who leads her to the ultra-orthodox Haredi community. She comes to realize how simple life can be by following the rules. And she converts. Actress Annika Marks:

"But beyond all of that there's this whole concept of the Haredi community that life is not all about what you look like. This is a girl who hates herself and is living in Pacific Palisades where all the girls are 90 pounds."

Bethany's departure alarms her step-parents who rush to Israel and fight their way through conflicting cultures. Given Graf's treatment of the Haredi community, the play generated controversy when rehearsals began.

Graf says some actors refused to audition; some media and religious leaders have spoken out against the play, saying, "Let's not point the finger at anything negative going on in Israel because it just stokes the fire of anti-Semitism," according to Graf.

Graf says Theatre J in Washington, D.C. faces the same criticism. It's running a play called "Mikveh" – that's a bath some Jewish women use for ritual immersion. But Graf is undeterred. "Behind the Gates" opens tomorrow at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood.

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