There’s a new-ish Jewish theater in town. Peace Mountain Theatre Company is in its third year of producing in Potomac. In residence at Congregation Har Shalom, the troupe was founded by congregant Laurie Freed, a long-time actor, director and theater educator. She named the theater Peace Mountain because that’s what Har Shalom means in English.
While Freed wasn’t looking to start a synagogue-based theater troupe, she was interested in forming a theater with a Jewish outlook. Har Shalom provides rehearsal and performance space, and the theater creates a curtained, black-box setting with flexible seating.
The performers and backstage personnel are all paid and many have professional and community theater experience. The company operates on a shoestring; there is a budget of just a few thousand dollars for each show at the moment, Freed said.
Washington is home to Theater J, the award-winning and internationally acclaimed company based at the Edlavitch DCJCC, and the recently formed Mosaic, a brash upstart founded by former Theater J director Ari Roth. Freed said she wanted to take Jewish theater out to the Maryland suburbs.
“I felt that a theater company, which either did Jewish plays or that adhered to Jewish ethics and Jewish values in the wider Potomac area was filling a void,” she said.
For its third production and season, Freed selected Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” which premiered on Broadway in 1966 and received the Pulitzer Prize the following year. No, Albee isn’t Jewish, nor are his uber-WASPy upper-middle class characters, but Freed still sees the play’s relevance for a theater with a primarily, though not exclusively, Jewish audience.
“The mission of Peace Mountain is to be doing thought-provoking, entertaining, relevant theater,” she said. “We felt that we also had to find works that spoke of Jewish values and Jewish sentiments, even if the characters were not necessarily Jewish or the playwright was not Jewish. We felt that this particular play did talk to some of these issues.”
The play features Agnes and Tobias, two wealthy empty nesters, and Agnes’s sister, Claire, known for her heavy drinking. But in this family dynamic of a very financially comfortable family, the bar is always open — cognac, martinis — and someone is always pouring. The conversations are meandering at first, Agnes (Nancy Blum) trying to play and bait her straight-laced husband (Louis Pangaro), but they both have stiff-upper-lip syndrome. Claire (Janet Constable Preston) is the loose cannon, a recovering, or lapsed, alcoholic; she and her sister have a strained relationship, filled with missed expectations.
Into this tight little family enclave, long-time friends Harry and Edna (Nick Sampson and Leah Mazade) show up out of the blue. They are the houseguests who won’t leave. They’ve come because of an unknown and unspeakable terror that they can’t explain or describe. Then 35-year-old daughter Julia (Devora Zack) returns to the roost; her fourth marriage on the rocks. It’s angst, anxiety, fear of aging and dying, fear of living — general fear disorder, perhaps. And here the delicate balance is disturbed. The long weekend leaves everyone completely changed, yet absolutely unmoved and in the same place as where they started. It’s Albee dissecting 20th century malaise and the fear of the inevitable.
What marks this play as so relevant at this moment in time, is the so-called fear factor. Albee’s fears were unspeakable, literally unnamable. When Edna and Harry arrive, they simply explain: “We were frightened.” And say no more. Today, with the results of the recent election outcome, many find real fears in the changing political climate of the nation, giving this play new relevance. What it lacks, though, at least for this reviewer, is a Jewish thread — save for an often-used descriptor of Jewish family plays — dysfunctional. Albee reminds me, at least, that all families, akin to Tolstoy, are not only alike, they’re also dysfunctional.
“A Delicate Balance,” Peace Mountain Theatre Company, Nov. 17, 19, 20, Congregation Har Shalom, 11510 Falls Road, Potomac. Visit peacemountaintheatre.com for tickets and information.