Moving play closes season at NJT

Moving play closes season at NJT

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

James Sherman’s alternatately warmly amusing and deeply affecting play From Door to Door, about the individual and intergenerational issues among a grandmother, mother and granddaughter is an excellent choice to close The New Jewish Theatre’s ninth season.

The title of the play is a deliberate pun on the Hebrew prayer “l’dor v’dor,” which translates “from generation to generation.” The youngest of three characters confesses that for years she thought the Hebrew and Yiddish expression really was “door to door.” As the heartwarming and humorous script unfolds in the 90-minute production, which has no intermission, the audience is brought up close and personal with the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the three generations of Jewish women over a 60-year period from 1939 to the present.

The play is largely seen from the perspective of the mother, Mary Goodman, splendidly portrayed by Michelle Burdette Elmore, a truly gifted actress who brings both depth and range to her role. Mary is sandwiched in between her challenging, often exasperating immigrant mother, Bessie (Donna Weinsting in a believable and often moving portrayal) and her high-spirited, often high-strung and self-critical daughter, Deborah, played with energy and compassion by Michelle Hand. The husbands and siblings of the three women enter the dialogue frequently, but are not seen on stage, keeping the focus on the three generations of women. Lest one think that From Door to Door is “only for women,” there are many issues in the play that affect both genders and all members of all families.

The three women often argue strongly between and among themselves and then reaffirm their enduring commitment to one another and to the principle of “shalom bayit,” peace in the household, a major Jewish value.

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To be sure, each of the women in the play has “issues.” As a young girl in Chicago’s public schools, Mary shines as a promising artist, prompting encouragement from her teachers that she pursue her gift as a possible eventual career. “There are no girl artists,” says the sternly practical Mama Bessie, whose own traumatic experiences in the Old Country, which she calls “On the Other Side” have given her an overly practical, make no waves approach to life in the Promised Land of America.

Most of Mary’s life is given over to being a patient if often overwhelmed caregiver to her difficult, quarrelsome mother. Bessie’s complexities are revealed in several moving scenes, especially one in which to the surprise of her daughter and granddaughter she not only does not enjoy Fiddler on the Roof, but hates its for its sentimentality. She recalls that when the cossacks came to her village when she was a little girl to rape and plunder her family, “they didn’t come with music.”

Debbie, meanwhile, has learned how to navigate the professional world of modern and post-modern America brilliantly, even though she can be reduced to tears trying to duplicate her mother and grandma’s “perfect” cabbage soup. The three women, all intensely aware of their Jewishness, are deeply conflicted about how to embrace it or push it away in their individual and family lives.

There is controversy over whether Deborah should go ahead and marry a non-Jewish man. Debbie is deeply offended when her mother, who had never “practiced” much Judaism in their home and seldom “went to services,” harshly denounces her fiance as a “shaygetz” and vehemently tries to cancel the wedding.

From Door to Door, skillfully directed by Edward Coffield, truly made the appreciative audience laugh and cry, and sometimes get teary-eyed with recognition of the universality of the issues the three women struggle with.

(From Door to Door is playing in the Sarah & Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre in the Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, through May 2l, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. For information and to order tickets, at $20 to $24, call 3l4-442-3257).