The latest production in Theater J's 2012-2013 season is a beautifully written, precisely directed play whose theme of romance hindered may remind you slightly of "Romeo and Juliet." Yet Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht's goal in creating "Apples From the Desert" was not to simply explore the problems faced by two young people in love who are not allowed to marry.

Instead, Liebrecht aims to view a range of religious, familial, sociological and cultural differences facing a young couple in dual settings, in Jerusalem and in a kibbutz in the Negev Desert in 1980.

The main characters are two sisters, Victoria (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Sarah (Sarah Marshall). Victoria is married to Reuven Abarbanel (Michael Tolaydo), a strict Orthodox Sephardic Jew whose religion is his life.

Reuven's primary failing is that he doesn't appreciate his wife or recognize the charm of his free-spirited daughter, Rivka (Blair Bowers). When Rivka meets a young man, Dooby (Brandon McCoy), at a place where people dance, she realizes the thrill of allowing her body to express its natural rhythm. When her father forbids Rivka to leave the house, she runs away and meets Dooby at his kibbutz.

'Apples From The Desert'
Where: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW
When: Through Jan. 6
Info: $25 to $60; 800-494-8497;

Liebrecht covers a lot of territory in "Apples From the Desert," going back to the beginning of Victoria and Reuven's marriage and trying to make sense of Reuven's inability to sympathize with his daughter. It's a tribute to Tolaydo's acting skills that he can make the intractable Reuven a credible character, formed totally by his religious views and his culture.

Director Johanna Gruenhut directs Bowers to maximize every detail possible to clash with the patriarch's controlling persona. From the moment we meet her, Rivka is astonishingly ready for life: fresh-faced, with long braids to her waist, her feet anxious to start dancing. It is a remarkable first performance for Bowers at Theater J.

Mendenhall plays Victoria as a divided woman, deeply entrapped in her husband's world yet anxious for her daughter's happiness. Sarah Marshall provides much needed comic relief as the unmarried, philosophical Sarah. McCoy's role is a small one, but he makes it interesting, as the charming young man who makes Rivka want to live in the desert and raise organic apples.

There is an ultimate reconciliation in "Apples From the Desert," but it comes not a moment too soon in this story of clashing attitudes, where even a shared religion is not enough to keep people from shattering each others' lives in the name of habit.