NJT’s ‘The People’s Violin’ strikes conflicting notes

Tune up the violin, arrange a look of mock sympathy on your face and settle in for a long self-examination delivered by the tormented main character in Charlie Varon’s “The People’s Violin,” which the New Jewish Theatre opened last Thursday at the Little Theatre at Clayton High School.

Family secrets, identity issues and the American penchant for reinventing ourselves are at the heart of this play. At the age of 43, Sol Shank is a struggling filmmaker. The son of a therapist and the husband of a therapist, Sol describes himself as a failed human being. In a quest to figure out what went wrong, Sol sets out to find out who his father is – you know, deep down – by making a documentary film about the man.


Watching “The People’s Violin” is like attending an endless series of therapy sessions with an acquaintance you don’t much care for, an acquaintance who is convinced that his identity crisis makes for a thrilling detective story. Several plot twists do add interest, but they are sometimes delivered with a heavy hand, abetted by video screens that show way too many slides of fire.

In short, Varon’s play juggles too many themes. By revisiting each one repeatedly, he dilutes their impact. Also, the playwright overlooks a more powerful ending than the tidy one he settled for–watch for the scene with the torn birthday card, and see if you agree.

Varon wrote “The People’s Violin” as a one-man show, and performed all 20 characters at the premiere in San Francisco in 2005. The New Jewish Theatre has expanded the cast, dividing up the roles among four actors. Throughout, the play is at fault–but not the players.

Portrayed with much intensity and heaving many a deep sigh, Richard Strelinger’s Sol Shank is relentlessly unsure about who he is, why he is the way he is and what his father may or may not have done to contribute to his angst. Strelinger struggles to make this self-obsessed fellow a sympathetic character, but instead we just want Sol to figure out how to live his best life and get on with it. And in this case, when Sol thinks he has done just that, we don’t believe it for a minute.

In half a dozen or more roles, Terry Meddows deftly changes personalities every time he changes shirts, delivering multi-layered mini-portraits of characters all far more interesting than the melodramatic Sol. Meddows’ portrayal of Nathan Epps and later, a wheelchair-bound friend, are especially rich.

Richard Lewis plays Sidney Shank, the tightly controlled, cold-as-ice father who rails at his son — and rightly so — for his narcissism. Respected and adored by the many Holocaust survivors he helped heal, he has no interest in helping his son. Lewis is strong in the part, holding close all the family secrets that Sol so longs to hear. Lewis also appears in multiple roles, and masters each one.

As Nirit, Sol’s wife, Ruth Heyman stands out in a scene where her husband is filming her for a documentary about women’s peak sexual experiences–and the experience she relates is about another man. Throughout the play, Heyman appears in sequential scenes as both Sol’s wife and his mother, Sylvia. Her accent and her body language hint at the role changes, but the audience could use a few more clues beyond the addition of eyeglasses.

Deanna Jent directs, gracefully weaving together the many story strands. Dunsi Dai’s simple, multipurpose set handily accommodates a series of locations in several states and two countries.

In the end, when the violin that rocks Sol Shank’s world finally is heard, you walk out reminded that all children want approval and affirmation from their parents. Most of us figure out that whether or not we get that, the best way to become who you are is to take responsibility for yourself and move on. Then there is Sol Shank. Tune up the violin, and arrange that look of mock sympathy on your face.

The People’s Violin

WHO: The New Jewish Theatre

WHEN: Evening and matinee performances on Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends through March 14

WHERE: The Little Theatre at Clayton High School, #2 Mark Twain Circle

HOW MUCH: $30 to $34

TICKETS: Online at www.newjewishtheatre.org or 314-442-3283