Inhumanity

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana

In Vichy, France, 10 people are brought in by the Nazis to supposedly have their identification papers checked.  When it is revealed that the Nazis are really looking for Jewish people to send to concentration camps, tensions rise, debates rage, plans form, and people vanish one by one.  Some to freedom.  Others to death.  This is Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller and performing at several local venues under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.

I’m going to start with the ending of this review.  If you miss this show, you will be doing yourself a massive disservice.

Now let’s go the beginning.

One of theatre’s most amazing powers is its ability to take us out of ourselves for a while.  But it doesn’t always take us to a happy place.  In those moments, another of theatre’s powers is revealed.  Its ability to be a powerful agent for change by forcing us to take a long look at ourselves to examine our pasts, our motivations, and our history in order that we might be able to make those changes.  Incident at Vichy is one of those types of plays.

This is Arthur Miller’s least known and produced work.  I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw it on the BSB’s schedule.  After watching it, I’m surprised at its obscurity because it is clearly one of Miller’s finest works.

Few writers had the ability to shine a light on the darker sides of humanity the way Miller could.  He could effortlessly show our prejudices, our brutality, our capacity for evil.  Yet there is always the silver lining of hope.  Never is that more important than for this play as Miller must bring his skills to bear on a real part of our history.

Scott Kurz returns to the BSB for the first time in several years to direct this production and hasn’t lost a step.  The piece is masterfully staged as the 10 people sit side by side on a bench and are taken away in order.  Movement is minimal, but expertly utilized in the tiny performance space.  Kurz’s direction is absolutely impeccable.  No energy is wasted.  Each beat carefully presented.  The show is perfectly cast and each member of the ensemble nails their role to the floor.

Where does one begin analyzing a cast like this?  All do a superlative job, but some truly memorable performances come from Jeremy Earl who gives one of his best and deeply emotional performances as The Waiter; Garett Garniss as Lebeau, an extremely nervous artist who constantly taps out a melody and laments the fact that he was caught simply because he wanted to take a walk and see something real; John Hatcher as Bayard, an electrician who instantly recognizes the danger this group is in; Josh Ryan as a gypsy who provides some levity as he protects his pot; Tom Lowe as a “social anthropologist” who is confident he can recognize Jews through the length of noses and circumcision.  His smugness was so aggravating that I wanted to punch him in the mouth.

David Sindelar also shines in a role as a silent rabbi whose curled hand suggests a stroke, but he is always aware of what’s going on.  Sindelar has a gift for acting with his eyes and you can tell when he’s feeling fear, concern, defiance, and sadness with an occasional click of the tongue or mutter or whimper thrown in for good measure.

Scott Kurz gives an A+ performance in his turn as Leduc.  His delivery is so natural and extemporaneous that his lines truly sound like they’re coming off the top of his head as opposed to being learned dialogue.  His Leduc is determined and courageous, willing to risk his life if it means saving some of the others.  Some have argued that Leduc may be the voice of Miller himself as he recognizes the depth of depravity in humans and always serves as that galvanizing force so others will confront evil instead of kowtowing to it or simply lamenting it.

David Mainelli is pitiable in his role as Monceau.  I think this role could easily be played as a sniveling coward, but Mainelli makes him more complex.  His take on the character is more akin to the typical attitude taken towards Hitler when he was first gaining power.  He truly cannot believe that the Nazis would be so animalistic and barbaric as to incinerate people in furnaces due to their faith and ethnicity.  His determination to cling to the law which should protect him is both admirable and tragic as it forces him to suppress his survival instinct.

Vince Carlson is brilliant as Von Berg, the Catholic prince of Austria who is the one person guaranteed to escape this horror.  The fact that he knows he will escape puts an extraordinary burden on his shoulders as he must decide what to do with his freedom.  Carlson does phenomenal work being bowed by this pressure.  Unlike the rest, he truly understands the extreme danger presented by Hitler.  He’s seen his servants venerate Hitler like a god.  He’s seen the destruction Hitler is bringing to the Jews.  Von Berg represents the part of the populace that must make the life or death decision to either turn a blind eye to the oncoming storm or make a stand against it.

Charleen Willoughby’s costumes really enhance the production and add a bit of crucial life to each of the performers from the spot-on uniforms of the Nazis to the elegant custom-made suit of Von Berg to the rags of the Gypsy to the working-class clothes of Bayard and Leduc.

Incident at Vichy shines a glaring light on one of the darkest periods of human history and Miller reminds us it is an evil that must not be permitted to rise again.  As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing”.

Incident at Vichy continues through April 21.  The April 14 performance will be at Omaha Benson High School (5120 Maple St) at 2pm.  The April 19-20 performances will be at The B Side of Benson Theatre ((6058 Maple St) at 7:30pm.  The April 21 performance will be at Omaha Burke High School (12200 Burke St) at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 ($25 for students/senior/military) and can be obtained at www.bsbtheatre.com or 402-502-4910.

Ashes to Ashes

Sholem Asch is a young, hungry Jewish playwright who wishes to write stories about his people that show they are just as flawed and human as anyone else.  Members of his own community refuse to let him produce his play, The God of Vengeance, in Yiddish theatre as they perceive his work as anti-Semitic, so he takes the show on the road.  After a long, successful run in Europe, he manages to bring his show to Broadway.  Then trouble really begins for his show.  This is Indecent by Paula Vogel and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Assuredly, this is one of the most difficult and challenging shows I’ve seen produced in quite a while.  Ms Vogel’s script borrows from quite a few genres:  drama, musical, comedy, Yiddish, play in a play, and wraps it in a sheen of surrealism that gives the production an almost dreamlike quality.  This quality is well suited to this show as it is a show of memories of what once happened.  Going along with the motif of memory, which is a tricky thing, after all, some of the events depicted are fiction or embellished.

Ms Vogel’s script well handles the difficulties Asch faced with his script.  Some of the subject matter and themes in The God of Vengeance such as blasphemy, prostitution, and homosexuality are still taboo by today’s standards, let alone in the early 1900s when they would have been viewed as downright abhorrent by society, especially American society.  Even worse was the fact that many missed the point Asch was attempting to make due to only seeing the surface of his work and not digging a little deeper.

Truthfully, this show would test the mettle of any director, but Susan Clement-Toberer rises to the challenge and manages to merge all of this play’s disparate elements into a rock solid production.  Not only has she led her troupe to stellar, nuanced performances, but she was quite creative with her staging and transitions.  From having her actors sitting on stage before the show, still as statues until the lights breathe life into them, to original transitions using song, dance, and music, this show is a master’s level class in direction and storytelling.

Ezra Colon sizzles in his Blue Barn debut as Sholem Asch.  He well essays the young Asch as a youthful, energetic artist bound and determined to tell stories about his people.  One of my favorite moments was the respectful defiance he showed to his leaders and peers at the play’s first reading as he knows what he is saying with his play and is confident that he can find ears receptive to its message, even if those ears are others than his own community.

Colon is equally as impressive as a middle aged Asch and he somehow seems to age decades in a matter of moments with a slump of his shoulders and a haggard, wearied expression on his face.  His whole being seems to wonder if his work is a noble fight or a curse as trouble mounts for the Broadway production.  He finds himself unable to properly defend the work or his troupe due to his limited command of English and things he has witnessed as part of a delegation which have broken him in half spiritually.

Jonathan Purcell provides a powerhouse performance as Lemml.  He works wonders as the shy tailor whose eyes are opened by Asch’s work which he considers a life changing masterpiece from the very beginning.  Watching him tentatively begin a new career as stage manager for The God of Vengeance to growing into a confident, new person who takes full command of the show to keep it alive is a complete and utter joy.

Suzanne Withem is marvelous in multiple roles.  With a pair of glasses and shawl, she is Asch’s supportive, loving wife, Madje, and the first fan of his bold script.  With a change of clothes and a slightly vacuous expression, she becomes Virginia McFadden, an inexperienced performer who has taken the role solely to shock her parents on multiple levels.  But her best role is that of Ruth/Reina, the Yiddish actress who originally portrays Rifkele in the American production of The God of Vengeance.  She is proud of her Yiddish identity and has much in common with her character, right down to knowing the love of another woman.  Her scenes with her lover, Dorothee Nelson/Dine, are some of the best in the show as they are charged with a raw power and honesty and I consider “The Rain Scene” one of the best moments I’ve ever seen mounted on a stage.

Leanne Hill Carlson also lights it up in multiple roles.  But her two best are Freida Neimann, a slightly egotistical and prejudiced actress who finds her characters through intuition as opposed to reading the script and Dorothee Nelson/Dine, the American Manke for The God of Vengeance.  Her chemistry with Ms Withem just ripples with life and she well plays the age old agony of love vs career as the chance to be a Broadway star nearly causes her to sever her relationship with Ruth/Reina as well as subsume her ethnic identity to be more palatable to American audiences.

Strong supporting performances are supplied by D. Scott Glasser, especially as Nakhmen, a Jewish scholar who opposes Asch’s script; Judy Radcliff, as her portrayal of Esther Stockton playing the role of Sarah in The God of Vegeance provides some wonderful levity; and Jonathan Wilhoft who shines as I.L. Peretz, a Polish writer who gently advises Asch to burn his script.  Samuel Bertino, Kate Williams, and Olga Smola also do fine work as a trio of musicians who provide the score of the production.

Steven Williams provides a beautiful, broken down stage with its cracked and crumbling walls and raised platform.  His lights are equally good and quite ethereal at points, especially with the ghostly blue of “The Rain Scene”.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes are spot on.  Fine examples of her work are the quiet elegance of Asch’s suits, the well-made, but lower quality garb for Lemml, and the deadly accurate Hasidic dresses for the women.  Bill Kirby sounds are inspired and his use of artillery effects towards the end had me jump out of my seat.  Melanie Walters provides some unique choreography for scene transitions.

Indecent is the epitome of the Blue Barn mission and makes for an interesting case study into The God of Vengeance. Was it the work that was corrupting or was it corrupted by others once it hit American shores?  What was the play’s truth and did it get lost in the presentation?  Was it a curse or a blessing?  You may ask yourselves these and other questions as you watch the production.  You may not come up with a definitive answer, but you’ll certainly have a lot of food for thought.

Indecent plays at the Blue Barn through April 14.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on April 7.  The shows for March 23, 30, and April 6 are sold out.  Tickets are $35 ($30 for seniors) and are available at www.bluebarn.org or at the box office at 402-345-1576.  Due to mature subject matter, this show is not suitable for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

To Live Again

Elliott Liteman is in a state of living death.  Stricken with Lazarus Syndrome (a type of survivor’s guilt which afflicts some people who are resuscitated after clinical death), Elliott doesn’t want to die, but is afraid to live.  During a horrific blizzard, his family comes to visit and he learns the importance of forgiveness and embracing life.   This is Lazarus Syndrome by Bruce Ward and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

First and foremost, let me assure you that this isn’t a doom and gloom story.  True, there are moments of weightiness, but this is an excellent slice of life tale full of humor, hope, and even mystery.  Ward’s script focuses on themes such as family, regret, ennui, aging, self-loathing, forgiveness, mortality, and what it means to be alive.  I found myself spellbound by the tale as Elliott’s internal struggle is outwardly manifested as he spars and engages with his family.

M. Michele Phillips has provided a superlative piece of direction to this story as well as an inspired bit of casting. She understands the path of the story well, skillfully navigating the many turns of the tale and capitalizing on every beat. Ms Phillips guides her actors to rock solid performances and you’ll never doubt for an instant that this group is a family.

Brett Foster gives a powerful and poignant performance as Elliott Liteman.  Living death well describes Foster’s essaying of Elliott as he merely goes through the motions of living.  Foster gives a wonderful weariness to Elliott whose guilt and depression are so great that he’s turned away from almost everything that made him happy and lives a life that’s a mundane routine of taking medicine to combat his HIV and wandering around his apartment in his bathrobe.  You can’t help but root for the guy when he finds small bits of happiness and vitality whether it’s through a sweet early morning conversation with his lover or a vigorous debate with his family.

Foster makes you feel the pain of a man who has lost his sense of self and is just seeking a way to end his cycle of nothingness.

Thomas Lowe plays the small, but crucial role of Stephen Bliss, Elliott’s young lover.  Lowe brings a sweetness and innocence to Stephen who has enough energy to live life for the both of them.  Your heartstrings will be tugged as Stephen’s love for Elliott allows Elliott to reclaim small sparks of himself and Stephen’s honesty and plain-spokenness may be the key to Elliott finally living his own life again.

Matt Allen is awesome as Elliott’s younger brother, Neil.  Invoking the essence of younger brothers everywhere, Allen’s Neil is a bit of a thorn in Elliott’s side as he drips melted snow onto Elliott’s floor and scarfs down Elliott’s food while making wry observations on his unique tastes in edibles.  Allen brings an incredible extemporaneousness to Neil’s dialogue as well as a snarky attitude which he carefully modulates to be a pest to Elliott, but not obnoxious or mean, especially when they start having suffering battles or discussing their somewhat fractious relationship.

Brent Spencer is the ideal Jewish father as Jake.  He believes a good meal can solve all ills and that the three things Jewish people do best are eat, suffer, and fight.  He is also clearly a man of his generation as he was brought up to believe that men didn’t show emotions and foul language is inappropriate in polite conversation.  But he also shows that an old dog can learn new tricks as his own losses have taught him the value of emotions and he tries to instill that lesson into Elliott.

Ben Adams has designed a cozy little apartment that feels like a real home.  Taelore Stearns’ lights pack an emotional punch.  They actually feel just as sad as Elliott.  Fred Goodhew’s sounds buoy the show’s emotional beats.  Leah Skorupa’s costuming is just right with the suits worn by Neil and Jake and the hum-drum look of Elliott with muted t-shirt, boxers, and a somewhat colorful bathrobe to offset the drabness of his other garb.

In the end, this is a story of life overcoming death and that it can still be lived and enjoyed despite great tragedy if one is only willing to take that chance.

Lazarus Syndrome plays at SNAP! Productions through June 24.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The final show on June 24 will be at 2pm.  Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, seniors (55+), TAG members, and military, and for all Thursday shows.   For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.snapproductions.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, Lazarus Syndrome is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California Street in Omaha, NE.

A Tragic ‘Parade’ Performs at OCP

PARADE

Opens February 9, 2018 at the Omaha Community Playhouse

Omaha, Neb. – Parade, the true story of a Jewish man wrongfully accused of murdering a young girl in a small Southern town, will run at the Omaha Community Playhouse February 9 – March 11, 2018 in the Howard Drew Theatre.

Parade is the Tony Award-winning musical based around the trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish man wrongfully accused of murder in Marietta, Georgia in 1913. Religious intolerance, political injustice and racial tensions are already prevalent in this small Southern town, and when reporters begin to sensationalize the case, the likelihood of a fair trial is put in jeopardy. With a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and music by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, The Bridges Of Madison County), this true story reveals the beauty of the human condition, even when faced with tragedy.

Disclaimer: Contains language and situations related to racial tension and mob violence.

The events surrounding the investigation and the trial of Leo Frank led to the birth of the Jewish civil rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League.  Following the Sunday, February 25 performance, staff members from the Omaha chapter of the Anti-Defamation League will participate in a post-show discussion about the history of the ADL. Open to all attendees of that day’s performance

Production:  Parade

Credits:  Book by Alfred Uhry.  Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Co-conceived and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince.

Director:  Jeff Horger

Cast

Brendan Brown as Riley

Breanna Carodine as Minnie

Brooke Fencl as Essie

Adam Hogston as Brit Craig

Chloe Irwin as Mary Phagan

Megan Kelly as Lucille Frank

Melissa King as Mrs. Phagan

Nelson Lampe as Judge Roan

Grant Mannschreck as Frankie Epps

Michael Markey as Hugh Dorsey

Rebecca Noble as Sally Slaton

Mike Palmreuter as John Slaton

Joshua Lloyd Parker as Ivey

Brian Priesman as Tom Watson

Tony Schneider as Mr. Turner

Christopher Scott as Luther Rosser

Jonathan Smith as Jim Conley

Jill Solano as Lizzie Phagan

Grace Titus as Iola

Scott Van Den Top as Starnes

Catherine Vazquez as Monteen

James Verderamo as Leo Frank

Randy Wallace as Mr. Peavey

L. James Wright as Newt Lee

Show Dates:  Feb 9-Mar 11, 2018; Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm

Tickets:  At the OCP Box Office, by calling (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com or www.TicketOmaha.com. Single tickets start at $42 for adults and $25 for students. Ticket prices are subject to change based on performance date, seat location and ticket demand. Call the OCP box office for current prices. For groups of 12 or more, tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students.

DiscountsTwilight Tickets – A limited number of tickets are available at half price after noon the day of the performance at the Box Office. Cash or check only. Subject to availability.

Sponsored by:  Carter and Vernie Jones

Location:  Omaha Community Playhouse, Howard Drew Theatre (6915 Cass St, Omaha, NE  68132)

Get Bent

Max is a liar and con man.  He is also a marked man as Nazi Germany has passed a law outlawing homosexuality and ordering homosexuals rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  Max will do whatever it takes to stay alive and out of the clutches of the Nazis, but one lover will cause Max to hide his true self while another will restore it.  But the cost is terrifyingly high.  Discover the price in Bent by Martin Sherman and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

Sherman has written a neat little script that abounds with hope, tragedy, and even a touch of comedy along with some nice foreshadowing and surprises.  He also focuses on a lesser known bit of knowledge about Nazi Germany in that homosexuals were just as much of a target as the Jewish people with the twist that this group was viewed even less favorably.  Sherman uses an interesting conceit of having his primary characters have no accents despite their being German natives.  This adds an everyman quality to the characters showing that the evil and persecution they faced was a problem for humanity and not just a localized, national issue for Germany.

This play is uniquely suited to Joshua Mullady’s talents as a director as nobody knows how to craft character conversation scenes quite like him.  This is essential for this particular play as it is almost completely dialogue driven requiring a director who knows how to keep the life and energy pumping through the wordplay.  And Mullady does this in spades with his actors delivering extemporaneous dialogue with some of the sharpest cue pickups I have heard.

The entire cast does a fine job in supporting this story as each adds a precious bit of life to the production and all have absolutely perfect projection.  With that being said, I’d also like to salute Don Harris’ standout cameo performance as a bloodthirsty and psychotic Gestapo guard as he will make your blood boil with his cruelty and viciousness.

Ben Beck doesn’t even seem like he’s acting in this play as he is so natural and believable as Max.  He’s actually quite the scoundrel as he supports himself with cocaine dealing and con jobs and routinely lies like a rug.  But he also shows bits of a tender heart as he tries to help and save the two men in his life.  Unfortunately fate seems bound and determined to work against him as his own survival instinct crooks his efforts. This gives Beck the opportunity to beautifully sell two powerfully emotional scenes at the end of each act that are guaranteed to move even the coldest of hearts.

The two men in Max’s life require a bit of yin/yang quality and that quality is well embodied in the casting of Beau Fisher and Eric Grant-Leanna.

Beau Fisher plays Rudy, Max’s lover before his imprisonment by the Nazis.  Rudy’s function is to let Max be the strong protector.  Fisher embodies Rudy with a childlike innocence and trust in Max.  He is perfectly content to enjoy life as a dancer and watering his plants, fully trusting in Max to take care of the important things to ensure their survival.  But this childlike trust eventually destroys Rudy once he becomes the hunted as his happy-go-lucky existence renders him unable to fend for himself.  When he faces the ultimate challenge on his way to Dachau due to his need for glasses, Fisher’s screams and cries will chill you to the bone and his final fate will reduce you to a puddle of tears.

While Rudy allows Max to be the protector, the function of Horst, Max’s lover in Dachau, is to allow Max to be the protected.  Eric Grant-Leanna skillfully embodies this quality as he teaches Max how to survive in their personal piece of hell.  He’s tough.  He’s knowledgeable.  He’s loving.  He also helps Max to remember who he really is through his love which culminates in an incredibly and intense romantic scene made all the more stunning as it is done solely with the power of voice, words, and imagination as neither Max nor Horst ever touch each other.

I can’t say enough good things about the technical elements of this show.  Ben Adams’ set is a phenomenal, dilapidated flat that transforms into the barbed wire surrounded Dachau and in the midst of it all is the ominous pink triangle which marked all homosexuals in the concentration camps.  Zach Kloppenborg’s costumes are well suited to the era especially the costumes of the prisoners and stormtroopers.  As always, Joshua Mullady’s lights imbue the show with a special bit of life and Daena Schweiger’s sound design further bolsters the play, especially the air horns and crackle of the electrified barbed wire.

Though these voices be of the past, their words still ring loud and clear today. Our world is still very much in a war against evil and this play reminds us that we are still in the thick of a fight.  But it also reminds us that that fight can be won when good people bind together and counter it with faith, hope, peace, and love.

Bent plays at SNAP! Productions through Sept 17.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, seniors (55+), TAG members, and military, and $12 for all Thursday shows.   For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.snapproductions.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, Bent is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California Street in Omaha, NE.

Family Warfare Provides Strange Synergy of Heart and Humor

A long standing grudge between cousins Daphna and Liam boils over into warfare over who gets the chai necklace owned by their late grandfather.  They violently and cruelly argue about what is most important:  faith, culture, or self.  This is the plot of Bad Jews currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Do not let the title of the play trick you into thinking the play is anti-Semitic.  The bad Jews in question are just bad because one is a hypocrite, the other is an atheist, and neither are likable people.

Susan Clement-Toberer’s direction is outstanding in this dramatic comedy.  Not only has she molded some sharp performances, but she has also done a remarkable job finding the beats of this play.  From farcical comedy to tender moments, this show will take you on a thought provoking journey from start to finish.  Throw in a beautiful studio apartment set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto and you will be in for an interesting night of theatre.

Megan Friend is an absolute dynamo as Daphna Feygenbaum.  Deftly merging comedy and drama, Ms Friend knows how to be funny, yet keep the comedy utterly grounded in reality.  At the same time, she was capable of some powerful dramatic moments.  Ms Friend’s Daphna is little more than a mouth with hair.  She is unbelievably animated and talks incessantly about everything, anything, and nothing.  Daphna also has a personality so obnoxious that you’ll want to scream, “Shut up!!” five minutes after she starts talking.

But Daphna’s mouth is also a deadly weapon.  Her barbed tongue easily tosses verbal knives and she knows how to prey upon people’s weaknesses such as when she cons Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, into singing a song to prove her lack of talent.  Ms Friend’s Daphna seems to pride herself on her Jewish heritage, but that pride is akin to the Pharisees of the New Testament.  It holds no meaning for her other than the chance to prove her moral superiority by being holier than thou.  And this holier than thou attitude is why she thinks she deserves the chai necklace.

Jonathan Purcell portrays Liam Feygenbaum.  Having missed his grandfather’s funeral due to being on a vacation with his girlfriend, Purcell’s Liam returns dreading the fight that he knows is about to erupt when he learns that Daphna wants the chai necklace that he already possesses.  Purcell’s Liam is an extremely high strung person.  He dislikes Daphna with a passion with much of that dislike coming from the fact that he and Daphna are simply two sides of the same coin.  Not only do they use similar phrases, but his mouth is just as potent as hers when it comes to verbal barbs.  And his militant atheism serves as a counterpoint to Daphna’s militant “faith”.

I thought that Mr. Purcell’s performance somewhat missed the mark.  At one point, Daphna describes Liam as being smart and smug, but I never saw these attributes come through in Purcell’s interpretation.  He was more high strung and shrill.  Purcell also seemed to have some difficulty fusing the comedic and dramatic elements of his character.  A prime example of this being a rant that Liam goes on after Daphna leaves the room to brush her hair.  The words are incredibly mean-spirited, but Purcell’s interpretation is farcically hilarious.  With a touch of dramatic edge, the words could have dug the knife into Daphna a bit more deeply and demonstrated Liam’s smugness.  Without that fusion, Liam came off a bit whiney.

Jon Daniel Roberson gives a stunningly underplayed performance as Liam’s younger brother, Jonah.  Roberson’s Jonah is the voice of reason between his feuding family members.  He has a quiet strength about him as he takes the occasional shot from both his brother and cousin, but, with true courage, chooses not to respond.  He tries not to get involved in the battle as he agrees with both sides in certain aspects of their arguments.  In a stunning final moment, Roberson’s Jonah also proves that he is the good Jew in this story.  The only flaw in Roberson’s performance is that he needs to be louder.  It was difficult hearing him for a good portion of the play.

Sydney Readman comes off a little flat as Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.  Some of her line readings sounded memorized and her character seemed a bit one dimensional for the most part.  However, her utter mangling of a song in an attempt to cheer up Daphna was one of the highlights of the show.  Ms Readman also does a nice bit of character work at the end of the show after she gets involved in the climax of the chai necklace argument and reveals her own true colors.

Ultimately, the play’s compelling story, flawless direction, and fairly solid acting makes for a fine night of theatre.  Daphna’s hypocrisy and Liam’s smugness show how faith or lack of it can be used to make people feel morally superior.  But one simple act from Jonah will demonstrate what it means to be truly faithful.

Bad Jews plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through March 14.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Shows on Feb 28 and Mar 7 are sold out.  Bad Jews contains some very strong language and a scene of violence.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1575.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.

The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.