Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Wanderers indeed does take its title from the notion of "the wandering Jews," and the four characters in the play are three and a half Jewish. It is the half Jewish person we meet first, Sophie. Her mother was born into a Satmar Hassidic community in Brooklyn, rigidly observant Jews, and broke to marry an African American professor in upstate Albany. Although, when her husband Abe snorts that it is on his shoulders to give their children a sense of Jewish identity because she wasn't raised Jewish, Sophie retorts, half joking, "being Unitarian is kind of like being Jewish." Abe, it turns out, is also the child of a mother who fled from that same Satmar Hassidic community. However, in Abe's case the break came shortly after his birth; his father Schmuli was, and continues to be, immersed in that extreme form of Judaism. In that opening scene, Sophie tells us she was seventeen when she knew that she would marry Abe, when he did something that, for the first time in her life, made her feel fully seen.
The other couple in The Wanderers are Abe's parents, Schmuli and Esther. We first meet them on their wedding night, Esther still in her bridal dress with a collar up to her chin and sleeves down to her wrists (A. Emily Heaney designed the perfectly nuanced costumes), a degree of modesty required in their community, but otherwise uncommon in 1973. The newlyweds are just getting acquainted. They had met only once, at a supervised meeting in accordance with the practice of arranged marriages. Esther has thoughts about the strictures on their lives imposed by ancient customs and admits, "I have read books I probably shouldn't have." This is in marked contrast to Schmuli, so beholden to and bewildered by the laws of his faith that upon the birth of their first child, when Esther asks him "Would you like to hold her," Schmuli responds with a wide-eyed "Is it permitted?" Is he that much in awe of the laws of his God, or is he terrified of life? Or, for Schmuli, is there no difference?
The play is divided into chapters, identified on a screen in the center of the set. Each chapter shows both couples in the course of several turbulent years in their marriages. For Sophie and Abe, married for ten years, part of the turbulence stems from their both being writers: he, the highly acclaimed winner of a Pulitzer and a pair of National Book Awards before the age of forty; she, suffering writer's block after her one published book fell flat. They also have the stress of raising two young children with parenting duties unequally divided.
We walk in on that is a new source of tension. Abe is elated because Julia Cheever, a beautiful and world-famous actress, attended his most recent reading at a trendy New York bookstore, seated in the front row, her eyes fixed upon him. When she follows up with an email to express her high regard for his work, he responds in the most gushing fan-boy manner.
Their email exchanges continue with increasing frequency and intimacy. Julia, also married with children, tells Abe she feels guilty about their correspondence, and he is thrilled by her implication that their relationship has become something "illicit." When Sophie comes to Abe with news that his father has died, he responds to her sympathy and support by saying that he needs to be alone. He attempts to recite the Jewish mourners kaddish but finds no comfort in it. Instead, he turns to his computer, to Julia.
As for the account of Abe's father's (Schmuli's) death, we hear a description of it from Abe, but later see that played out differently, leading us to wonder about the truth of the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. That same wondering becomes a recurrent theme, and Ziegler skillfully plays it to hold our constant attention. I found myself leaning in to discover the truth about these four people and their two marriages, and Julia, who seems too fabulous a creation to be bound to any truth.
Director Miriam Monasch honors the lens through which all of these characters live their lives. None of them have chosen to be born as they were, each has to make a life based on their genetic and cultural inheritance, and whatever else it is that endows a spark of uniqueness to all of us. The text would have the two men are hard to sympathize with, given their boorish behavior toward their wives–yet Monasch draws out their humanity as well. The play moves swiftly, running 115 minutes without intermission without once giving cause to feel restless.
Of the performances, I was most won over by Lynda J. Dahl as Sophie. Perhaps because she is the first to appear, but also because of her impassioned performance, I had the sense of Sophie being the most empowered, even when she is treated horribly by Abe. She always conveys a sense of what she is prepared to take, and what she will not accept. As Abe, Tony Larkin is appropriately arrogant and self-absorbed. His effusive declarations to Julia, long an object of his adoration from afar, are conveyed as roundabout affirmations of his own self-regard–must he not really be something to deserve someone so unattainable?
Lea Kalish delivers another superb performance, showing the confidence that allows her to question centuries of tradition and the courage to act on those questions. At the start, Avi Aharoni plays Schmuli a shade too much the weakling his wife accuses him of being, more a boy than a man. When Schmuli finally acts, Aharoni shows him calling on the strength of the community and its unyielding laws, summoning a resolve he did not know he had, and hinting at a trembling fear that he may yet crack. Julia Cheever is played by Amanda Cate Fuller with a sense of being at all times self-possessed, as if she is well accustomed to the kind of fawning attention Abe is showering upon her, and her response is merely another role she has learned to play.
The set design by Rick Polenek is quite a marvel. Other than the screen in the middle–used for projections, but also as a portal through which we see first see Julia–a series of upright panels, standing accordion-like, are covered with hundreds, if not thousands, of sheets of 8½ x 11 paper, each containing words. The people in this play are surrounded by multitudes of words, words used to play parts they have been trained all their lives to play, or to attempt to become someone else, or to fall back to earn a living, or deceive others or themselves. There is an endless forest of words, and it is among these words that our characters wander, seeking the words to tell them how to live their authentic lives. Ziegler has a keen sense of how these people use their words, crafting dialogue that always rings true.
The Wanderers offers a great deal to think about and reflect upon. To what degree are all of us looking for words to create the story of who we actually are? Can we use words to give ourselves a better life, or to make ourselves happier with who we are? Or are they merely words, obscuring the truth? These are the ponderings of much-examined lives, those not focused on just getting through the day. I admit, I am still sorting it out, but I am grateful to Ziegler for raising these weighty questions in such an engaging manner, and to Six Points Theatre for providing them with a beautifully realized production.
The Wanderers runs through May 14, 2023, at the Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company) Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25 - $40; Student (with valid ID) and Artist Rush - $15. For tickets and information, please call 651-647-4315 visit www.sixpointstheater.org. Masks are required for the Sunday, May 7 performance. All other remaining performances are "mask optional."
Playwright: Anna Ziegler Director: Miriam Monasch; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Todd M. Reemtsma; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Bobbie Smith; Projection Design: Tom Burgess; Technical Director: Timothy M. Payton; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Assistant Stage Managers: André Johnson Jr. and Olivia Nyman.
Cast: Avi Aharoni (Schmuli), Lynda J. Dahl (Sophie), Amanda Cate Fuller (Julia Cheever), Lea Kalisch (Esther), Tony Larkin (Abe).