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from Door to Door with Jewish Rep

(This article was based upon a preview performance)

Now in its seventh season, the Jewish Repertory Theatre is something of a miracle. The theatre is motivated by the belief “that dramatic art offers a unique opportunity to diverse audiences to learn more about Jewish values and customs”. One might think that the theatre’s mission, which is to share “our vibrant Jewish culture with the broader WNY community by presenting plays that deal with Jewish and multi-cultural themes and issues” and the likelihood that Buffalo’s arts-savvy Jewish community itself would provide the basic built-in audience, ought together guarantee the theatre’s success.

Yet, in theatre, as in life, there are no guarantees, and to survive seven seasons is a remarkable achievement and has required a huge effort.

One major obstacle for the theatre is the lack of a permanent home. JRT has produced its plays in a variety of venues, often at the Andrews Theatre (home of the Irish Classical Theatre) but also at the Black Box Theatre at UB’s Center for the Arts, Musicalfare Theatre, Road Less Traveled, and Alleyway Theatre, where the current production, from Door to Door opened this week.

Multiple venues means that each production team must be oriented to that new space, and not just to the sets but sound, lights, and marketing. Even the box office and ushers will vary from play to play. But more important, one’s audience must be re-oriented as well–they have to find you.

With the eighth season line-up just announced however, such challenges are mere trifles, and will not deter a good idea from finding the spotlight. It also helps to have a theatre legend as one’s guiding light.

Saul Elkin–arguably Buffalo’s most recognized actor who is perhaps best known as the founder of Shakespeare in Delaware Park–is the Artistic Director and co-founder of JRT. He is the driving force behind these past seven seasons. Dr. Elkin explains, “The reality is that our schedule is always subject to the availability of venues. So we have to wait to hear from the theatres where the open slots are, and it’s costly.” 

However, with his typical good humor, Dr. Elkin says there is an upside too.”We have managed to stay downtown where we want to be, and by now audiences are finding us. There is a 25 year old theatre in San Francisco called ‘The Traveling Jewish Theatre’ who have no permanent venue… like us…wandering Jews.”

Dr. Elkin adds, “We, of course, have a core audience but our subscription list is growing and many are not from the Jewish community…it could be more. Hopefully it will grow.” The shrewd choice to offer both popular and challenging plays has helped to expand those audiences.

One wonders, given almost limitless the galaxy of Jewish literature, how such a season is chosen. “There’s loads of material,” says Dr. Elkin. “Just Google ‘Jewish playwrights’ and the list is long and impressive. I look for good material that shares aspects of being Jewish that might both surprise a general audience and remind them that there are really no ‘differences’.”

True to form, from Door to Door, by James Sherman, which opened this week at the Alleyway Theatre, satisfies that criteria.

The play, whose title is derived from a Hebrew prayer “L’dor V’dor “, translates as “generation to generation”. It follows the story of three women–Russian refugee Bessie, her daughter Mary and the granddaughter, Deborah. Time shifts back and forth, very cleverly, from 1936 to 1999 to track the story from “impoverished immigrants to assimilated Americans.”  

While the story revolves around the challenges of preserving Jewish traditions as subsequent generations absorb the American dream, it is also the story of all immigrants. “For every Yiddish truism uttered by Bessie,” writes director Elkin,” there is sure to be an Italian, Irish or Chinese counterpart.” And indeed, I found myself contemplating my own Prussian great-grandmother’s true life story as Bessie’s story unfolded on stage.

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The simple set, a series of monochrome doors, serves as a quietly nondescript dwelling, alternating as a variety of city apartments, suburban homes and even a summer cottage. The subtle background also bolsters the masterful use of pantomime as a substitute for the physical props which represent life’s daily activities. An invisible button is sewn like magic, a dinner table is set with non-existent china. No less effective, the muted set allows the actors to always remain the focus. And focus they do.

Sheila McCarthy, Eileen Dugan and Anne Roaldi portray the three generations with a fierce dedication to detail. Ms. McCarthy is, in a word, astounding, as she morphs from a middle-aged matron to the nonagenarian matriarch. Both Ms. Dugan and Ms. Roaldi take on the difficult task of transforming their characters from rambunctious childhood to responsible adulthood with an almost effortless flip of the switch.

The actors connect to each other and their lives so convincingly that they easily overcome the occasional cliché and avoid the potential schmaltz factor inherent in the script. Navigating through life’s many challenges: marriage, betrayal, economics, education, and even the recipe for a good sweet and sour cabbage soup, the women on stage remain live and genuine. So real, in fact, that when Ms. McCarthy’s Bessie delivers a harrowing recollection of her flight from Czarist Russia, the moment, potentially fraught with melodrama, instead becomes a tour de force which, at this showing, was rewarded by the audience with a well-deserved round of applause.

That was the moment in the play that reminded me of my own real life “Grossmutter” who skipped out of Germany at the tender age of 15 to avoid the dreaded arranged marriage, a fate which befell her siblings. Arriving in New York in 1890, my great-grandmother, like Bessie, spoke no English, but she worked by day and at night went to school to learn English. She soon married, bore 4 children, was widowed at 25, but lived a full life as a proud American. Born in the age of clipper ships, she saw man land on the moon and passed away at the age of 96.

As a third generation American only vaguely connected to her journey, I wonder how well these stories will be remembered by the fourth and fifth generations now taking the stage. Will they appreciate the sacrifices and the bravery of their ancestors which has allowed them to live their privileged lives? This is the question, finally, that from Door to Door asks. Surely it is a question which applies to all Americans, regardless of national origin or religion. It makes for very good theatre and a very compelling evening. Very well done.

from DOOR TO DOOR , presented by the Jewish Repertory Theatre,  at the Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley,  May 13-June 6. Directed by Saul Elkin, Lights by Brian Cavanagh, Set by Chris Cavanagh, Costumes by Ann Emo, Sound by Tom Makar, 688-4114x 334

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Neil Garvey,
attorney/actor/writer, is a native East Auroran and 30 year resident of
Buffalo’s Elmwood neighborhood. Long involved in the cultural &
civic life of Buffalo, he has served on several theaters & civic
boards, including the Delaware Park Steering Committee. The first board
chair of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, he served as the company’s first
CEO and appeared in or produced some 25 Shakespeare plays. Stage credits
include Shea’s, Studio Arena, The Kavinoky, The Irish Classical, Road
Less Traveled, and played Santa Claus for the BPO Holiday Pops for the
past eight seasons.

    

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