Ari Roth’s play is essentially his own story
by Lisa Traiger
An abstract angular frame of a house containing a few nearly empty rooms is an appropriate space in which to wrestle with shadows – both those thrown into relief by lighting designer Colin K. Bills and those drawn from family history and personal stories by playwright Ari Roth. Scenic designer Luciana Stecconi’s vision – spare and suggestive, demarcated by blonde 2x4s – provides our first glimpse of the incongruity in Andy and the Shadows, Theater J’s world premiere by its long-time artistic director Roth.
The work, decades in the making, is on stage through May 5 at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J, where Roth has directed theater programming for 16 years. Andy Glickstein – obvious alter-ego for playwright Roth – the work’s protagonist, is fighting an internal battle to come to terms with his parents’ distinctive and divergent histories as child Holocaust survivors. Bridging history, fantasy, memory and imagination, the work navigates the thorny quest of a son seeking his place and voice in the world and reconciles his identity as a child of survivors who have succumbed to comfortable middle class.
This work, which is an installment in Theater J’s forward-thinking Locally Grown play festival, incubating new plays from artists in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region, has been worked, reworked and workshopped over the past 26 years. It now takes its place as a prequel in what Roth terms a trilogy on Holocaust memorialization. Born Guilty, commissioned by formidable director and Arena Stage’s founder Zelda Fichhandler made its premiere in 1991. Based on journalist Peter Sichrovsky’s book examining the lives of children of Nazis, the play was a searing look at how parents’ actions impact their children. The sequel, The Wolf in Peter, presented at Theater J in 2002, returned to Sichrovsky, a Vienna-born Jew, after he turned and joined up with the neo-Nazi Austrian Freedom Party of Jorge Haider.
Andy and the Shadows, then, is a prequel of sorts. Exploring a tightly knit Chicago family through the eyes of its middle son, Andy, it takes the audience on a journey with flashbacks, flash forwards and imagined scenarios that dissemble and reassemble throughout the two-hour-40-minute evening. Part Woody Allen neurotic, part scenery-chewing Marlon Brando, Alexander Strain’s Andy can’t come to terms with his mother’s history, nor can he settle on a wedding date with his fiance, Sarah (a luminous Veronica del Cerro). A filmmaker in the play, which spans the mid-80s through today, Andy has determined that his mother’s Holocaust experiences are documentary film-worthy. We see his imagined musings on his mother’s valiant tale of survival as a hidden child.
That mother, the formidable Jennifer Mendenhall, has been placed on a pedestal in her son’s eyes. (Dr. Freud, call your office.) He envisions her as a winged angel, all dark braids and fresh-faced innocence as played by Colleen Delany (who also doubles as Amy, one of the Glickstein sisters). Those sisters have supporting roles, but we don’t learn a great deal about them, nor about the fiance, Sarah, particularly what attracts her to this nebbishy, self-involved filmmaker who bickers with his parents and sister on the day of his engagement party. Mendenhall’s Raya is imperious, running the household with fortitude. The sisters, Delaney as Amy, and Kimberly Gilbert as Tammy, seem immune to the depressive family atmosphere, or perhaps they’ve just inoculated themselves by jetting off to join the IDF or work for an NGO in Thailand.
Andy’s father, Nate, is a milquetoast cipher, particularly beside his staunch wife. Bald and retiring as played by Stephen P. Martin, Nate’s Holocaust history is far less dramatic, but the trauma of witnessing violence and navigating displacement has hard-wired him to withdraw – at least at home. He spends his time sifting through files of the local historical society, looking backward rather than ahead.
We see Andy unhinge as he gets close to a truth within his family’s history, which his mother has termed a “sad family.” At the center of the play, the filmmaker shoots a parody documentary of the 1966 big budget Kirk Douglas-Yul Brenner movie Cast a Giant Shadow, detailing the exploits of Jewish-American commander Mickey Marcus during Israel’s War of Independence. The scene feels both over the top and superfluous, save for the fact the result is a reconciliation of sorts with his father.
This “film within the play” serves as some sort of Chekhovian device. The character needs to overcome this hurdle to gain the ability to reach out to repair his troubled relationships. Roth has borrowed from other major playwrights, too, it seems, ranging from the standard Clifford Odets kitchen table family drama scene in act one, to an Arthur Miller-like monologue and fluidity of time, and a Tony Kushner hospital scene (with a black male nurse to boot) and that dream-like, girl-child angel, which recalls Kushner’s Angels in America. And like a Tennessee Williams play, there is hidden tragedy woven into the very fabric of the characters’ lives that initially hampers Andy from moving forward, until his breakthrough discovery, which arrives while he’s jailed overnight for filming without a permit in a synagogue parking lot.
Roth’s smart and erudite dialogue, which is reproduced under director Daniella Topol’s care, elevates a very personal story filled with internal obstacles, twists, flashbacks and detours that his Andy character strives to overcome. When we first meet him, Andy is 50 looking backward on his youth at 10, 16, and his mid-20s – essential formative years. We watch him struggle to find himself and earn his place as a healer in this so called “sad family,” as his mother terms it at one point. He’s on a quest he says, first as a precocious kid, then later to his fiance, for what he calls his duende. The Spanish term refers to that ineffable sense of expressive emotion, in flamenco it’s called dancing from the soul and leaving it all on stage.
Roth is seeking his own duende, that evocation of his felt life experiences, the creative force and power that is the lifeblood of art making, that hidden inspiration that has compelled him to create and rework a play for more than a quarter of a century. That it is, in many ways, essentially his own story – that of an artist finding his voice and coming to terms with his parents’ Holocaust memories – makes it at times almost too personal to watch. Yet, artists and writers draw from what they know – read Miller, or Williams or Kushner and you can easily take a certain measure of each as both a playwright and a man, tracing characters back to experiences they have lived. The same holds true for Roth. What might have turned into a vanity production had he produced it early in his career at Theater J, has now become the fulfillment of a long, circuitous and productive journey, mining his personal stories, wrestling his hidden demons and shedding light on the shadows – his own and those who see darkness in their own depths as well.
Andy and the Shadows is onstage through May 5 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets, $35 and up, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or at www.boxofficetickets.com. For information, visit www.theaterj.org.