‘October 7’: When the World Turned Upside Down, Again

The compelling, chilling play documents survivors’ experiences of the Hamas attack on Israel.
‘October 7’: When the World Turned Upside Down, Again
Ilya (Jonas Barranca) and Asaf (Yair Ben-Dor) take shelter, in "October 7." (Aaron J. Houston)
NEW YORK—Feelings of joy and contentment, life going as usual—everything was perfectly normal, until it wasn’t. So it was for people on the mornings of Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, when, from seemingly out of nowhere, their lives were changed forever. Playwright Phelim McAleer looks at another such day in Unreported Story Society’s “October 7: In Their Own Words,” a “verbatim play” of eyewitness accounts of the Oct. 7, 2023, massacres in Israel.
Yasmin (Salma Qarnain) and Zaki (Jeff Gurner) talk, in "October 7." (Aaron J. Houston)
Yasmin (Salma Qarnain) and Zaki (Jeff Gurner) talk, in "October 7." (Aaron J. Houston)
These recollections instantly transport the audience from the Actors Temple Theatre to a kibbutz in Israel barely two kilometers from Gaza and the nearby Nova Music Festival. The festival is filled with people singing, dancing, and drinking until gunshots and explosions are heard of the Hamas terrorists’ attacks.

The comments show the initial confusion as to what was happening. Some people at the music festival initially believed they were hearing fireworks. Their reactions quickly turned to shock, panic, and a desperate fight for survival. Some ran for their lives, and others jumped into cars and drove as fast as they could while shells exploded all around them. The descriptions, near misses, and frantic conversations would call to mind a big-budget Hollywood movie, if it all weren’t so tragically real.

Running on a parallel track to these are stories of those hiding in “safe rooms” in their homes where all they could do was wait. We feel the terror they experienced as they heard people attempting to enter and wondered if those pounding on the door came to save them or kill them. Even more gripping are the accounts of those who had to wait hours in total silence, with no way of knowing what was going on in the outside world.

This is a play filled with questions rather than moral lessons, as those involved, as well as the audience—with the benefit of hindsight—wonder how this could have happened, and what, if anything will change when the fighting is over. Even though it’s clear that all those relating their experiences survived the events depicted, it doesn’t mean they emerge unscathed. Everyone who has experienced a deep, collective traumatic event can understand and relate to the horrors endured that day.

While the more frantic moments and overall terror of what is happening grip the audience by the throat, it’s the smaller, more personal moments that have the greatest effect, particularly when those in crisis end up doing things they never thought they would. Ayelet (Leora Kalish), who stops to collect underwear and a bra before heading for her safe room, thought, “Well, if they’re going to kill me, at least I will die decently,” and later, once her flashlight ran out of power, began to reflect and recalled every museum she’d ever visited so as to keep from panicking. Shani (Jenny Anne Hochberg), a combat medic hiding in a tree while terrorists were shooting all around her, drew strength from a blessing written on her necklace.
Tal (Marissa O'Donnell) and Shani (Jenny Anne Hochberg) sit beside each other, in "October 7." (Aaron J. Houston)
Tal (Marissa O'Donnell) and Shani (Jenny Anne Hochberg) sit beside each other, in "October 7." (Aaron J. Houston)
Some of the more memorable stories include those of Dennis (René Ifrah), a member of the Israeli Defense Forces, who was shot five times; Itamar (Paul Louis), who went up against a heavily armed terrorist with only a pistol; Dor (Nathan Vincenti) who, after fleeing the festival with his girlfriend and a wounded friend in the back seat, swerved his car into a pursuing terrorist on a motorcycle; and Zaki (Jeff Gurner), a man who drove his car back and forth from the festival grounds, rescuing as many people as he could.
Director Geoffrey Cantor did excellent work putting the cast through their paces. This involved both extended physical and emotional gymnastics on a mostly bare stage. The testimonies of the survivors are delivered by the cast at a frenetic pace that conveys the terror and confusion of the day’s events.
The cast of "October 7" unites around shared persecution. (Aaron J. Houston)
The cast of "October 7" unites around shared persecution. (Aaron J. Houston)
In relating their accounts of the attack to playwright Phelim McAleer and producer Ann McElhinney, the survivors are left to try to make sense of what happened to them, their loved ones, friends, and neighbors on Oct. 7. Our collective trauma at such atrocities pales in comparison to the visceral and raw emotional (and physical) wounds these survivors will carry for a lifetime. For them, life will never be the same.

For those who hear their words in this riveting production, may we continue to strive for peace in a troubled world.

‘October 7’ Actors Temple Theatre 339 W. 47th St. New York City, NY 10036 Tickets: 212-239-6200, Telecharge.com, October7ThePlay.com Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission) Closes: June 16, 2024
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Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.