Sunday, May 08, 2005

To Know Him (Jewish Community Center)

‘TO KNOW HIM’--a fitting production for the closing of the Halle Theatre

The drama program at the Jewish Community Center has a unique mission. It was founded to showcase dramatic, musical and comedy scripts that either have a Jewish theme or were written by Jewish playwrights. It has accomplished this mission well for many years. First in whatever venue they could find, then in a store front on Lee Road and then at the “new” theatre in the Mayfield JCC, which was called the Halle Theatre in honor of the donors who gave the money to build the performing arts space. The decision has been made to sell the facility and it will soon become rubble as it is replaced by condominiums. This leaves the JCC with no performing arts center. (If you know of a donor who would like to have his or her name inscribed on an arts facility, I’m sure that the board of the JCC would listen with an open ear.)

The theatre produced Yiddish and American plays until Yiddish became a language understood by fewer and fewer members of its audience. For the last number of years the offerings have been those written in English.

It is only fitting that ‘TO KNOW HIM,’ the final production at Halle, is being directed by Dorothy Silver, stars Brian Zoldessy and Reuben Silver and is produced by Fred Sternfeld. For many years Dorothy was the artistic director of the J’s drama program. The JCC’s playwriting competition is dedicated to her in honor of her many years of service. Her husband, Reuben, has appeared in and directed many of the “J’s” plays. By the way...the duo was recently inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame in a State House ceremony in Columbus.

Zoldessy, who is Director of Theatre Arts at Cuyahoga Community College, Eastern Campus, was instrumental in allowing the JCC drama program’s rebirth, after a year of hiatus, to perform its outstanding production of ‘RAGTIME, THE MUSICAL’ last year. Sternfeld not only directed ‘RAGTIME’ but was also the guiding hand behind ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ and other J productions and will be directing their fall production of ‘SOUTH PACIFIC.’ Zhe serves as the organization’s Theatre Consultant.

‘TO KNOW HIM,’ written by Albi Gorn, was the 2002 winner of the Dorothy Silver Playwriting Contest. It is the story of Rick, a gay man dying of AIDS, who receives an obligatory visit from Penny, a student in her last stages of preparation for the rabbinate. Her final assignment is to do visitations to hospital patients. Her enthusiasm and zealousness butt up against the Jewish, but agnostic Rick, a college professor of film, who wants none of her ministering. To add to the mix is Rick’s father, a traditional man who said “kaddish,” the prayer for the dead when he found out his son was homosexual. The two have been alienated for many years. Penny encourages prayer and reconciliation. Rick responds, “When you have heard kaddish said for you, what else is there to pray for?”

The plot of ‘TO KNOW HIM’ is obvious, but it matters little. The overall effect is quite palatable. It makes its statement about prayer, forgiveness, the Jewish philosophy “Tikun Olam” (repairing the world), and how life can be meaningful if there is someone in it to share both your joys and sorrows.

Director Silver has paced the show well and has honed a nice cohesiveness in the cast. Brian Zoldessy’s Rick not only looks the part of a sick man but conveys the difficulty leading to death well, including a phlegm-sounding rasp. Zoldessy needs not go too far to get the motivation for the role. He, himself, has been in precarious health for a period of time, so much of his psychological memory is immediate. His is an excellent performance.

Alicia Kahn as Penny has some strong moments. During her opening scene she shows proper angst, but overdoes it to the point that she is almost unbelievable as a real person and especially one who has come this far in her rabbinical training. As the play develops she becomes more real and grows as the character grows.

Reuben Silver doesn’t make his entrance until the second act. Not only was he met with applause, but an elderly man sitting behind me loudly pronounced, “Finally, there he is already.” Silver knows how to milk each line for meaning. He suffers verbally and physically, he mumphers to perfection. He makes the father, Harry, completely believable. Reuben Silver is Reuben Silver...what greater tribute can be given an actor?

Tony Kovacic’s set is excellent. The hospital room’s back wall is a scrim which allows us to see a backdrop composed of large movie posters from many of the films discussed in the bantering between movie buff Penny and film expert Rick.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TO KNOW HIM’ is an appropriate tribute to the history of JCC. It is a play worth seeing and this is your last chance to feel the warmth of the venue and emotionally touch and feel the history that has taken place there. Personally, having done much of my early theatrical performing in that facility, I dread seeing the wrecking ball destroy one of my “theatrical homes.”