Hate-crime drama lights up NJT stage

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Cherry Docs, the explosive play by David Gow which juxtaposes the strong wills of a neo-Nazi skinhead on trial for the brutal murder of a Hindu restaurant worker, and his liberal Jewish attorney is given a truly magnificent production as the third presentation of the New Jewish Theatre’s 2007-08 season.

With taut and pitch-perfect direction by Deanna Jent and equally powerful and moving performances by Joel Lewis as Jewish attorney Danny Dunkelman, and Charlie Barron as his skinhead client Mike Downey, and solid production values, Gow’s play gets the first-class interpretation that it deserves. Of special note is the set, the work of scenic designer Duni Dai, which splits the small NJT stage into a real-looking jail cell and an adjoining space where the attorney and his client hold their meetings.

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In her director’s notes, Deanna Jent describes the themes of Cherry Docs: “Hate, tolerance, love. In Cherry Docs, Danny and Mike journey back and forth between those words and the actions engendered by each. Exploring the good and evil inherent in each of us, these characters engage in personal battles that reflect the larger social issues.” Jent’s comments are on the mark. At the outset of the play, we meet the 30-something Legal Aid lawyer Dunkelman, who seems almost smugly self-satisfied with his life. An enthusiastic Canadian liberal, Dunkelman describes his deliberate decision to move into an ethnically diverse neighborhood, which he describes as “the United Nations of front porches and gardens.” He speaks lovingly of his wife Anna, who is of mixed Czech and Chilean parentage, and of their shared values and happy relationship. As to his Jewishness, Danny describes wearing a small Mogen David under his shirt “right next to my skin,” of having a mezuzzah on the front door and of working out at “the Jewish Y.”

We then meet Mike Downey, who describes in chilling detail the Cherry Docs shoes which gives the play its name. The audience learns that Mike is not only a frightening, hate-filled young man in his 20s, but that he seems very intelligent; he cannot be easily dismissed as an ignorant or stupid hate-monger. The most attractive feature of the Cherry Docs are steel toes, meaning that the shoes can be used as a weapon in a fight; indeed, Mike brutally kicked his hate crime victim with the steel-pointed shoes. A film version was made of Cherry Docs under the title of Steel Toes, and starred David Strathairn as Danny, who also starred in the first professional stage production of the play at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Joel Lewis’s performance as Danny at the NJT equals or exceeds that of Straithairn in the film version.

The play is multi-layered, complicated and at times disturbing, not only because of its subject matter, but because in the course of the production, the two characters keep changing and interchanging their beliefs, values and emotions. At the outset, there is no moral or values contest between the nice, middle-class Jewish Legal Aid attorney and his hate-filled, true-believing neo-Nazi client. Danny makes no secret of his revulsion for Mike, and the contest of wills between them makes for superb theater and offers considerable food for thought along with gut-pounding emotional impact. As the action unfolds, however, Danny becomes so consumed with the case that he loses sight of the rest of his legal practice, his marriage and his personal stability. Meanwhile, Mike, who is utterly unrepentant at the outset, keeps shifting back and forth between being a true-believing member of the neo-Nazi “Aryan Nation” who freely admits to killing his victim, and a frightened young man who does not want to spend as many as 25 years in prison, and what seems to be a real movement toward repentance and rehabilitation.

At the outset, Mike almost boastfully admits that he brutally beat a South Asian man, striking him repeatedly with his steel-toed Cherry Docs. He insists, however that he was highly intoxicated and while he intended to beat his victim, he was not trying to kill him. The victim lingers in the hospital in agonizing pain from the beating, and eventually dies. The audience is given a fleeting glimpse of the victim’s battered face, and we hear his hospital-bed victim impact statement in one of the play’s most powerful scenes.

While the film version of Steel Toes was well-made, David Gow’s story is more suited for a closed-in theatrical setting. The “opening out” of many scenes in the film actually saps them of the claustrophobic intensity of the searing one-act play on the spare, but superbly designed set.

Why would a Jewish lawyer agree to defend a neo-Nazi skinhead client who boastfully admits to a brutal hate crime that results in an innocent man’s death? Is he doing it to prove “just how liberal” he is? Is he doing it to improve his legal reputation by taking on a high-profile, highly controversial case? And why does Mike welcome Danny as he lawyer? At first, he is pleased to have a Jewish lawyer using his talents to defend a movement “that would eliminate” him if it prevailed. Later, the lawyer and his client develop a kind of respect and affection for one another, even while they continue to have severe resentments against each other.

Danny must confront his own growing fears of “the other” when he is accosted by a group of four “African-Canadian” hip-hoppers who menacingly surround his car as he drives to the courthouse and jail. Danny finds himself using the “hate” word over and over and becomes increasingly agitated and paranoid. Mike, on the other hand, in solitary confinement, has time to reflect on the severity of his crime and the consequences of putting hateful rhetoric into practice.

Mike wonders aloud if the issues around the concept of love are indeed more powerful than those around the concept of hate, while Danny’s smugness about his liberal views and “multi-ethnic” lifestyle, wife and neighborhood are mugged by a new reality of street gangs and a rapidly changing urban landscape which he cannot understand or “tolerate.” Thus the liberal Jewish lawyer must confront his own hateful demons, even while the hate-filled young neo-Nazi skinhead must finally embrace love and tenderness after the process of preparing his defense works as a kind of exorcism.

There is an interesting contrast between the full grain leather of the murderous Cherry Docs shoes with their steel toes which can kill, and the smooth, soft leather of the brief case that belonged to Danny’s father in the Old Country, which he lets Mike use to keep his legal documents in one place. In the course of the play, the two characters must decide when it is appropriate to be “tough” and when it is safe to be “soft” or tender. As they go back and forth, the tension and drama mount, but the audience is challenged to ponder the implications of the complex issues the story raises.

Because of the explosive and controversial nature of the subject matter, the NJT has wisely schedule a series of “talk-backs” with the audience, cast and crew, featuring visiting experts in human rights and pyschology, including Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, among others. Audiences will benefit not only from very good theater, but from an outstanding array of experts to faciltate after-performance discussions of their concerns and questions.

(Cherry Docs is appearing at the NJT’s Wolfson Studio Theatre through Feb. 10. For information or tickets and a complete list of “talk-back” speakers, call 314-442-3283).

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