2019 was a very “haimish” year for St. Louis theater

The 2019 New Jewish Theatre production of ’Brighton Beach Memoirs.’ Photo: Greg Lazerwitz

By Judith Newmark, Special to the Jewish Light

Maybe I’m just super-aware of these things. But I can’t be the only one to have noticed that on stages around St. Louis, 2019 seemed exceptionally . . . Jewish.

And we’re not just talking schmaltz. This was challenging, high-quality theater,  beautifully produced and thoughtfully created.

Not too surprisingly, the culturally specific New Jewish Theatre led the way, brilliantly mounting productions of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and Aaron Posner’s shrewd, imaginative “District Merchants.”

The story of a Brooklyn family struggling to get by during the Great Depression, the “Brighton Beach” ensemble exuded true family feeling. Directed by Alan Knoll, this production got the details right as well, from the mother’s pompadour to the “modern” candlesticks on the table. 

Posner transferred “The Merchant of Venice” to Washington, D.C., shortly after the Civil War. There, he focused on two marginalized groups, African-Americans and Jews. Both locked out of the white, Christian establishment, they sometimes did business with each other. Under director Jacqueline Thompson, this complex story reiterated what many audiences suspect: “Merchant” is not a comedy, no matter what your Shakespeare professor insisted. 

Max & Louie Productions gave Paula Vogel’s heart-shattering “Indecent” its St. Louis premiere. Set mostly in Europe before World War II, the play tells a fact-based story about a scandal that rocked the once-thriving Yiddish theater. 

Of course, that whole world basically was wiped out, along with many of its performers and much of its audience. Director Joanne Gordon’s highly theatrical production suited the subject matter – and demonstrated conclusively why projections, a relatively recent addition to the theater arts, can be as profoundly moving as sets, lighting, or even music.

“Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s mammoth two-play masterpiece, opened the 2019-20 Repertory Theatre of St. Louis season under the direction of Tony Speciale. (It was also the first production under the Rep’s new artistic director, Hana S. Sharif. Talk about a high bar!) 

True, “Angels” is a play about AIDS, during the plague years. It’s also a play about bad conservative government (with  President Ronald Reagan barely acknowledging the crisis, a flashback to Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts, and the link between them, Jewish fixer Roy Cohn). And it’s a play about domestic relationships, which do not fare so well.

But it is also about – and to my mind, most profoundly about – the relationship between God and humankind, which Kushner explores in distinctly Jewish terms. God is a glowing letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and we are obliged to struggle with him (just as Jacob became Israel when he wrestled with the angel). It’s the Jewish way. 

None of these themes obviates the others. Kushner, a great playwright, decided to address them all at once, and his work is the richer for it. And he endowed it with a “yiddishe neshuma” — a Jewish soul.   

Furthermore, the musical that has come to define Jewish theater for the modern audience, “Fiddler on the Roof,” returned to the Fox. Director Bartlett Sher freshened up the show’s very familiar texture – but he, too, preserved the yiddishe neshuma. As often as you may have seen “Fiddler,” this came across as a new experience.

It’s going to be tough for the new year to match that kind of record. But with “My Name Is Asher Lev” opening at New Jewish on Jan. 23, and “The Band’s Visit” making its St. Louis debut at the Fox on Feb. 25, is off to a very promising start.