NJT play explores faith and marriage

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Many people have observed in real life what is explored in Janece Shaffer’s play Bluish: a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman partly to “escape the burdens” of his Jewishness, only to have her convert, become deeply observant and start dragging her husband kicking and screaming into synagogue. Bluish explores such issues with humor, poignancy and melodrama in the current production at The New Jewish Theatre. The play is appearing through April 6 in the NJT’s studio theater at the Jewish Community Center.

Directed with verve and energy by William Whitaker, who has directed and acted at numerous theatrical venues, and featuring solid performances by the well-chosen cast, Bluish tells the story of a high-energy, accomplished couple, Beth Richardson and Ben Kishman, who are engaged to be married. Ben is a TV reporter aspiring to be an anchor, who has moved to back to his hometown of Atlanta to be with Beth while pursuing his career goal. Jokingly calling Beth his “shiksa goddess,” Ben is charmed by her blue-blood background, which includes having been a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, a non-Jewish sorority, her pointy nose and her use of expressions like “lovely.” One is reminded of Woody Allen’s Alvey Singer’s infatuation with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.

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While Ben doesn’t completely renounce his Jewish background, he does not warmly embrace it, either, to an unbecoming extent. He seems embarassed by the mannerisms and clingy qualities of his parents, Lillian and Manny Kishman, and his unhappy sister Ilene, who herself became embittered against Jewish practices when she was obliged to obtain a get, or traditional Jewish divorce, which she found demeaning. Ben’s dad Manny wears a yarmulke and regularly attends synagogue services and a weekly Torah class. Ben’s mom Lillian in the first half of the play almost seems like a stereotypical, overbearing Jewish mother. Clearly part of the attraction Ben felt for Beth, whom he met while she was conducting tours at an Atlanta museum, is that she could become an exit ticket away from what he sees as his Jewish “baggage.”

The NJT’s production of Bluish is exceptionally well-cast, especially Nicole Angeli as Beth Richardson whose range of emotions in the course of the complex play always seem genuine and never forced. David Cooperstein is also excellent as Ben, who appears a bit subdued in the first act, but emerges strongly in the second act. Peggy Billo as Ben’s mom Lillian Kishman and John Contini as his dad Manny Kishman, grow from being an almost sitcom-like “Jewish parents” couple into more textured and complicated characters later in the action. Sarajane Alverson is superb as Ben’s conflicted, rebellious sister Ilene. Andra Harkins is engaging and funny in the important role as Beth’s step-mother, Lane Overstreet. All Beth knows about her biological mother is that she died when Beth was only four. Her off-stage father has advanced Alzheimer’s and is not able to respond to any of Beth’s questions about her natural mother.

Things come to a head when Ben and Beth go for blood tests in anticipation of their marriage and Beth tests positive for Tay-Sachs disease, a condition found almost exclusively among Ashkenazic Jews; Ben tests negative for the disease, but Beth and Ben are convinced there must be a mistake. When Beth tests positive again, family members are able to download a copy of the marriage license of Beth’s parents, which proves that Beth’s mother, named Rachel Alden Canter, was indeed Jewish. The name of a wedding witness on the license leads Beth to more information about her mother. According to halacha, one is Jewish if one’s mother is Jewish at the time of the birth. (Reform Judaism recognizes patrilineal parentage as well as matrilineal).

The reaction to the news that Beth is Jewish by birth, on the part of Ben’s parents is way over the top, smothering her with kisses and hugs before she can even begin to process what all of this new information means. As Beth probes deeper into her Jewish maternal parenthood, she becomes increasingly drawn to Judaism, embracing a belief in God, joining Manny and Lillian at synagogue, attending weekly Torah classes, and then deciding she wants to observe Shabbat and finally to keep a kosher home.

Ben, who is consumed with his ambition to beat out a competitor for the soon-to-be-vacant anchor position at the TV station, moves from being amused by Beth’s embrace of Jewish practices to becoming nervous that she was becoming “too Jewish” in a way that might hurt his chances for the anchor job. Ben and Beth are both strong-willed and their conflict over how “Jewish” they want to be explodes into an engagement-threatening major fight, which provides much of the punch to the script.

Bluish derives its title from a joke Ben makes to Beth to explain his kind of Jew: “There’s the color blue, right? Well, there’s blue and then there’s blue-ish Just like there’s Jew and being Jew-ish. Dad’s a Jew. I’m Jew-ish.” Ben feels being Jewish is a “mixed bag.” His sister Ilene chastises him for never dating anyone Jewish and he mocks her for her failed marriage to a Jewish man. Shabbat at Ben’s home consisted of fried chicken prepared by the maid, and he confesses to Beth that he was always obsessed as a child with the desire for a Christmas tree.

Janece Shaffer’s play is both thought-provoking and entertaining, amusing and very dramatic at the same time. The audience must confront, along with Ben and Beth and their families, how they should identify themselves and how to express their connection to the fact of their Jewishness.

Ben’s parents, observing their 40th wedding anniversary in the course of the play model how long-term marriages negotiate differences through compromise, give and take and with a healthy dose of humor. Shalom bayit, Peace in the home, is a major Jewish value, often requiring compromise on Jewish observances. All of this makes for a fine evening of theatrical entertainment which can be enjoyed by the entire family.

(Bluish, shown at the JCC’s studio theater in Creve Coeur, completes its run at The New Jewish Theatre on April 6. For ticket orders or information call 314-442-3283).