YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


From the Soul

Writer distills her own experiences in Arab-Israeli conflict into 'The Vow.'


It was midnight when the phone rang. At home in her tiny North Hollywood apartment, Stephanie Liss picked it up and heard her cousin's voice. He was calling from Israel--which was in the midst of a war with Lebanon--and he sounded hysterical.

Over the next half an hour, he recounted an experience so incredible, so tragic, that it burned into Liss' memory. Even as he talked, she said, her "writer's blood started to churn. This was part of my soul now."

Then, her cousin said to her, "Only you can tell this story."

And so Liss, who has since become an award-winning screenwriter with a much larger apartment in Sherman Oaks, has spent nearly 15 years finding a place to tell that story. "The Vow," her first stage play, will have its Los Angeles premiere in a concert reading at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills on Saturday.

The play explores the difficult relationship between two men--one Arab, one Jewish--who were raised as brothers from the age of 8 but are torn apart by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Within a month of that late-night phone call, Liss packed up and traveled to the Middle East. It was 1983: Terrorist bombings and kidnappings were becoming a way of life in and around Beirut. For three months, she went back and forth between Israel and Lebanon, staying much of the time in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut with the foreign journalists.

She arranged to go underground with the Palestine Liberation Organization, pretending to report on the terrorist cause. She spent time at PLO headquarters in Tripoli and met the leaders of the movement. Though she's immersed herself in other writing projects--gone undercover as a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, spent the night in a prison's solitary cell, traveled to Somalia and Sarajevo--this was the most harrowing. The war raged around her--gunfire, artillery shells.

But Liss said she had to go there to understand the feelings of the characters she was going to write about. "If I haven't lived part of it, I can't tell the story," she said. "Everything I saw has wound up in this play."

Liss turned the story into a television movie script, which CBS bought but never made. Still, she always believed that it was meant to be a play.

"I wanted to do this as a play, first, because the characters could say what they had to say. It didn't have to be a polemic. It didn't have to be locked into this certain [TV's seven-act] structure."

Her opportunity arose last year, while working on the board of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. The group sponsors an arts festival in San Diego each June, so she began anew with "The Vow," this time as a play. A staged reading in San Diego went so well that word spread to Los Angeles, and another performance was sought, this time sponsored by the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance.

"I'll never stop doing films and long-form [TV]. I love it and it's been very good to me," Liss said. "But for the freedom to express the soul I have as a Jewish artist, I have only the Center and the Federation, who say, 'Come here and do what's in your soul.' "

The material in her soul was so powerful that it lured a number of successful television actors to donate their time to the project.

Nicholas Guest ("USA High") and Pamela Guest were two of the first actors to sign on. "As soon as I read it--and I read a lot of things--it immediately affected me," Nicholas Guest said. "It's beautifully written, and it's emotional, and it's truly about something. There are other things that I come across that are good, but this was truly exceptional. When something like that happens, you find yourself sort of effortlessly getting involved."

Nicolas Guest plays David, the Arab man who was adopted by a Jewish family after his family was killed during Israel's war for independence. Alan Rachins (most widely known as the acerbic Douglas Brackman Jr. on "L.A. Law") plays his Jewish foster brother, Benny. Both have grown up to be college professors, and both are under pressure to do intelligence work for the Israeli government.

Roxanne Messina Captor, who directed the play in San Diego, said the actors just fell into character, but especially Guest and Rachins, who have known each other for many years. "I was incredibly attracted to the relationship of the two brothers, and how it was a modern-day Civil War piece, brother against brother. The backdrop was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict . . . the core being, when you're up against the wall, and it's your brother against you, what happens?"

Rachins, who is starring in the new ABC sitcom "Dharma and Greg," is certainly plenty busy this fall. "At the same time, the name of this game is good material wherever it comes," he said. "Here came along this other play, a serious play, that is complex and interesting and well worth doing. . . . Who knows where this could go?"

Liss, who in March won a Writers Guild Award for her Lifetime movie "Hidden in Silence," hopes the answer to that question is into a Los Angeles theater for a fully staged run.

She's had offers in the past to turn "The Vow" into a theatrical film, but she's resisted. Even at the movies now, she said, people talk back to the screen.

The theater, she believes, is the place where human beings are still engaged by other human beings, where "you just sit there and become part of that world." In the theater, an audience might get a taste of how she felt hearing this story for the first time--from her cousin and over the phone.


"The Vow," Saturday, 7 p.m., at Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $10, $7.50 in advance. Sold out. Waiting list for future performances, call (818) 587-3200.

Los Angeles Times Articles