Tuesday, May 09, 2006

From Door to Door (Jewish Community Center)

‘FROM DOOR TO DOOR’ fits JCC mission

James Sherman, whose play ‘DOOR TO DOOR,’ is presently being produced by the Jewish Community Center, is also the author of ‘’BEAU JEST, the off-Broadway hit.

The title of the play, ‘DOOR TO DOOR, is based on a phrase in the Hebrew prayer book, "l'dor v'dor," which means "from generation to generation." And, from generation to generation is exactly what the play illustrates. The plot focuses on three generations of the same family." Sherman explains, "There's no secret this play is inspired by my mother. She knows it, she's seen it. The play is to honor her and the women of her generation." He continues, "One woman of my grandmother's generation, one woman of my mother's generation and one woman of our generation.” To accomplish the task, the play covers 65 years, from 1935 to just about the present.

It is written in memory format. It begins in the present. Mary, who represents Sherman’s mother, is sitting shiva for her husband. (Shiva is the seven-day mourning period which begins after burial. Survivors concentrate on their inner feelings to begin the healing process and take the first step into re-entering normal life without the deceased.) She is there with her daughter and, as the play develops, we flashback to various incidents in Mary’s life.

Sherman has used the script as a means of personal awareness. "When I was working on the play, it gave me an excuse for my mother to sit down and talk about herself, which is not something she loves to do," Sherman said. "I also talked to a number of women of her generation, and women like my sister, and what started to interest me about these mothers and daughters is how we take what we get from our parents and then make choices about what we will pass on to our children and not pass onto our children."

The play, which premiered in Chicago in 1999, showed regionally and then was produced off-Broadway in 2004 . It played nine previews and had a respectable 110 performance run in the Big Apple.

‘FROM DOOR TO DOOR’ fits well into the JCC’s arts mission of showcasing plays about Jewish topics and/or by Jewish authors. This concentration allows members of the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to be exposed to ethnic shows that might not otherwise be produced on local stages.

The JCC production is nicely paced by director Fred Sternfeld. The flashbacks and flash forwards could get confusing as Sherman’s writing stratagem has left little time for costume changes. Sternfeld has handled this potential problem very well and the time eras are clear.

The production generally works, but a miscasting makes for some lack of believability. While Jeanne Task (Mary) and Liz Conway (Deborah, the daughter) fit their roles well, Barbara Haas just doesn’t create the right sound or illusion as the Jewish grandmother. Her accent, her demeanor, her presence, lack the needed “tam,” (the taste) and the “yiddishkeit,” (the Jewishness). There is a cadence that makes for a believability to the Jewish sound. It is not something that one can act, it is almost something which someone must acquire from being around, living with, experiencing European Jewish women of that era. Haas lacked that quality. She is not the first actress who has had trouble with this. Valerie Harper didn’t have it in her recent Cleveland appearance as Golda Meir. Jessica Tandy lacked the right feel in the film, “DRIVING MISS DAISY.’ This is a role which is a much better fit for such local actresses as Elaine Rembrandt and Dorothy Silver.

Jeanne Task developed the nuances of Mary. She clearly understands the role of mother and wife. She was real, natural, convincing. Liz Conway, for the most part, was excellent. She was at her strength as the young Deborah, who was willing to defy her lack of Jewish upbringing by marrying a non-Jew (a “shaygetz”). She was excellent as the daughter who has transformed into the mother to her mother. There were some instances in the transitional scenes, however, in which she lost some of the characterization.

Ben Needham’s creative set design, which consisted of a series of interlocking doors on various levels, was excellent. The symbolism of the multi-doors which could have been opened in Mary’s life, but of which only a few were actually opened, expanded the script’s imagery.

Richard Ingraham selected excellent music, including a vocal version of the play’s title, ‘L’dor V’dor,” to tie the sound to the plot.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: JCC’s ‘FROM DOOR TO DOOR’ is a perfect fit into the theatre’s mission. The production is quite acceptable, but could have been better with more appropriate casting.