In playwright Anna Ziegler’s Washington premiere of her small, tightly structure one-act, “Another Way Home,” no small matters are wrestled down.
With funny moments and plenty of dry, self-deprecating wit, the play, which runs at the Washington DC-JCC’s Theater J through July 17, tools along nicely, but in Ziegler’s deft writer’s hand she filters in life’s biggest and most essential questions — those that ask, “Why are we here?” and “What is our purpose?” That this story plays out in the bucolic wooded setting of a fictional Maine summer camp where two young counselors are coming of age, belies the 21st-century existential underpinnings worked into the dramedy’s bedrock.
As well, the sardonic drama reveals the cracks in the upper-middle class, Upper West Side Nadelman clan: lawyer dad Philip, smothering mom Lillian, overachieving daughter Nora and troubled and over diagnosed son Joseph, or Joey, as he so pointedly prefers.
Ziegler has a knack for capturing the messy private conversations that no one would want heard outside the family. Is Lillian (stalwart Naomi Jacobson in one more turn as a neurotic and overbearing Jewish mother) overprotective in the extreme? What about Phillip — another Theater J regular, Rick Foucheux, as the over extended and demanding dad — whose quick temper causes a near trauma. Or Shayna Blass as too-wise-for-her-years Nora, the younger sister in this troubled family.
Set in the Maine woods of the fictional Camp Kickapoo, “Another Way Home” puts Joey, youthful Chris Stinson, in a fish-out-of-water setting where he behaves as a typical teen: sullen, ungrateful, embarrassed and angry at his parents, who have been trying too hard to insulate their son from life’s toughest challenges and difficulties. A counselor in training, he’s equally at odds with Mike, his near-perfect counselor.
Scenic designer Paige Hathaway’s use of rough-hewn beams that outline a typical camp bunk, enhanced by lighting designer Harold Burgess’s beautifully illuminated sunset of firey oranges and dramatic violets, provide an authentic, rustic feel to the 80-minute evening, as does sound designer Matthew Nielson’s subtle outdoor score of birdsong pre-sunrise. Director Shirley Serotsky’s firm but subtle hand keeps the tightly unwinding conflict on a mostly even course toward its resolution. Ziegler allows each actor, including even-handed Thony Mena as Joey’s head counselor Mike, a revelatory moment in this conflict-filled but ultimately warm-hearted play.
Zeigler’s work is no stranger to Theater J or the region. A former creative writing teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville about a decade ago, her “Photograph 51” was produced by Theater J in 2011. That smartly intellectual play, which dealt with the groundbreaking work of a female scientist in a male-dominated field, was produced this past fall on London’s West End starring Nicole Kidman, and is expected to make its Broadway debut in the fall.
There’s not much that’s specifically Jewish in “Another Way Home,” but in an entirely subtle and non-confrontational way, Zeigler writes — and Serotsky directs — the Nadelmans as culturally Jewish, in that East Coast, bagels-and-New-York-Times way. While the Jewish camping movement dates back to the early 20th century, the fictional Camp Kickapoo could as easily be Jewish as secular. Each of Ziegler’s characters carries deeply held secrets: memories of a simpler time and place for parents Philip and Lillian, easygoing visits to his dad’s office for Joey and, for Nora, a humorously analytical approach to the teen pop icon Taylor Swift’s angsty lyrics. Mike’s story, though, is most touching and instructive for it provides for an unexpected life lesson.
And yet, everything about the Nadelmans’ demeanor — Jacobson’s Lillian with all her neuroses and over indulgent mothering and Foucheux’s comically inept-dad jokes and high-fives for his son — resonates as culturally Jewish. Whether they’re Upper West Side or North Bethesda Jews, the affluence, the overindulgence, the dysfunctionality and the desire to forge idealized familial bonds reads like a 21st-century psychodynamic primer of an American Jewish family adrift. Zeigler has captured a lovely moment in the trajectory of the American Jewish family that deals gently but boldly with the existential struggle against alienation. It’s a sweet, and, yes, even wryly funny look at where American Jews are beyond summer camp.
“Another Way Home,” through July 17, Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.