Actor couple relishes challenge of NJT’s play ‘Sight Unseen’

Aaron Orion Baker and Emily Baker.  Photo: Eric Woolsey

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

After years of obscurity, Jonathan Waxman has hit the art world’s equivalent of the PowerBall. Wealthy buyers are paying in advance for his work – “Sight Unseen” – and a retrospective of his paintings is about to open in London. You’d think he’d be happy. 

But despite a fat bank account and a child on the way, Waxman is struggling with his Jewishness, haunted by the pivotal decision of his life: the rejection of his art school muse and lover 15 years earlier, the non-Jewish Patricia.

In Donald Margulies’ award winning “Sight Unseen,” which opens at the New Jewish Theatre on Thursday, March 12, the lid Waxman has kept on his life – his choices, his art, his ethics and his identity as a Jew – is ripped off when he takes a side trip to visit Patricia. She is living in the English countryside, sifting through the “bones and coins and petrified cherry pits” of a Roman garbage dump with her archaeologist husband, Nick. 

Jonathan and Patricia are played by real-life married couple Aaron Orion Baker and Emily Baker. For the 30-something Bakers, who met in college and have been acting since high school, “Sight Unseen” marks the third time they have appeared in the same production. But the relationships they’ve portrayed previously have not been central to the piece, as it is in “Sight Unseen.” 


And while they have played roles individually that called for love and romance, the relationship of the estranged Jonathan and Patricia is not one of them. 

“There’s very little intimacy between Jonathan and Patricia in this play,” Aaron Baker said in an email interview. “You only catch minor glimpses of what their relationship was actually like. So, the fact that we are married is a fairly incidental aspect to this production.”

Director Bobby Miller says casting a married couple was just a happy coincidence. 

“(The Bakers) are two of the finest actors in St. Louis at their age,” Miller said. “I had them both in mind when we decided to do the play, and it really had nothing to do with the fact that they’re married. However, I have both worked with a former wife for years as co-actors and have directed married couples before. Interestingly, I’ve directed ex-wives and ex-husbands, and it often works out better than with married couples.”

Miller said married couples often have a short-hand they use when working with each other and can, of course, work on their roles at home. The Bakers, he said, “have a sixth sense about each other and often can read each other’s minds.” 

The action of “Sight Unseen,” staged in the intimate Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, jumps in time and location. In each place, Jonathan is challenged to defend himself. Nick (played by David Wassilak), in the cottage, accuses Jonathan of being a sellout and a hack for knocking out half a dozen works a year for well-heeled patrons. Grete (Em Piro), a German journalist, questions his Jewishness. Patricia, in the studio where she has posed nude for him, challenges him to recognize and be true to his feelings. 

But it is in his childhood bedroom in his parents’ home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Jonathan is sitting shiva for his mother, that he makes the decision that becomes pivotal for both of them. Feeling the weight of his mother’s disapproval of his “shiksa girlfriend,” the Holocaust and assimilation, Jonathan coldly breaks up with her.  

The consequences of that rejection, Baker said, is “one of the most poignant aspects of this story. In his gallery interview, Jonathan says, ‘In art, as in life, we tend to affect people in ways we can’t always see. You can’t possibly know what that other person has taken away with her.’

“While neither has forgotten the other even remotely, Jonathan and Patricia don’t realize how indelibly changed, for better or worse, they were by one another until they are reunited. Passion leaves scars you can forget about for years.”

Aaron said he and Emily don’t usually draw from personal experience in their acting and wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so – or talking about it. The “emotional memory approach,” he said, can get messy.

“This story is so brilliantly written that we just get caught up in the poetry of it,” he said. “We don’t need to bring our stories into the theater. Margulies has provided a rich, complex relationship that does most of the heavy lifting on its own.”

Miller said he’s drawn to small, character-driven plays, as opposed to something like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that has “30 fairies and sprites in the forest” – not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

But “Sight Unseen” explores several layers at once, from questions of being a Jew to the nature of both art and the audience for art and, of course, relationships. 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve directed a love story,” he said. “Of course, the things I think hit audiences so poignantly with love stories is we’ve all gone through a situation of falling in love and for some reason it didn’t work out. And we realize as life goes on that we’ve missed an opportunity – an opportunity for happiness, for fulfillment. And, to me, it’s one of the most heartbreaking aspects of life.”