On Death and Jewishness | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

On Death and Jewishness

But God rattled on in his holy language about all kinds of important stuff, life-and-death stuff, and Moses just sat there like a grade A, number one goof, not understanding a single word. Well, you know what he felt like? He felt like some miserable little 12-year-old kid from West Texas who has to study for his bar mitzvah by mail order!"

So goes young Nathan Estanitsky (Alex Weisman)'s exegesis of the Ten Commandments in Mark Harelik's The Legacy, now showing at New Theatre. Moses spoke Egyptian, Nathan points out. He didn't understand the holy language, which explains why he was up on the mountain for 40 days and only managed to come back with "ten lousy commandments." Like Moses, Nathan, a dubious bar mitzvah candidate, is stuck in the wrong language (English) and the wrong place (Hamilton, Texas). This displacement was vividly portrayed last season in Broward Stage Door Theatre's production of The Immigrant, The Legacy's predecessor. The Immigrant is the story of two Russian-Jewish immigrants, Haskell and Leah Estanitsky, who make their home in Hamilton, population 1200. The Legacy continues with the next generation of Estanitskys, who still are the only Jews in Hamilton. Like The Immigrant this play also is based on the author's own history. The sequel picks up with the same family and setting, which provides continuity, but ultimately is a fascinating departure from the previous generation's trials of adjusting to a new country, a new language, and a new life. Normally the mere mention of the word sequel draws yawns from potential audience members, but New Theatre's talented cast and smart production prove that sequels don't always flop.

So many sequels are attempts simply to reproduce what was appealing about the first production. The Legacy bypasses this common pitfall, beginning with Rich Simone's set design. The Estanitsky household takes up most of the stage, revealing an interior look at the home, a place almost without boundaries. This creates the sensation of being inside the house as opposed to watching it -- a notable contrast to The Immigrant. The Legacy has moved into the Estanitskys' internal world, still Jewish by culture and identification but far removed from the lifestyle of a practicing Jew.

At the crux of the play is Nathan's mother, Rachel (Bridget Connors), who is dying of cancer. Her sister Sarah (Sally Levin) has come from Kansas City to take care of Nathan while Rachel and her husband, Dave (Jonathan Cantor), travel for medical treatment. They return home with the knowledge that Rachel's situation is beyond hope. After a passionate discussion with Rabbi Bindler (Lawrence Jurrist), who is passing through town and stops off to help Nathan prepare for his bar mitzvah, Rachel enters into a dialogue with Sarah, a converted Christian Scientist. Sarah sums up her religion's mind-over-matter philosophy: "A sick body comes from sick thoughts." Consequently Rachel has a powerful spiritual experience that raises new questions for everyone in the house.

The diverse opinions expressed by the characters throughout the play represent the wide spectrum of Jewishness: those of the observant rabbi; of Dave, who is not a practicing Jew but derives his sense of being Jewish from his family history; of Sarah, a Jew who has converted to Christianity; and of Rachel, who searches both Judaism and Christianity for reasons for her suffering. Likewise Nathan's bar mitzvah represents a juncture for both him and his father. Dave hopes that, by successfully completing his bar mitzvah, Nathan will be the link to his father's future as a Jew, but this hope undergoes scrutiny as the play goes on. "You're talking about a "sense' of being a Jew, like a flavor or a feeling. How can I help you with that?" Rabbi Bindler asks Dave. But Nathan, with his adolescent irreverence toward religion, is the one who manages to shed light on some of the questions with which adults have been grappling for generations: What is the nature of Jewishness -- culture? Religion? Heredity? And what is the meaning of death in Judaism and Christianity?

It is always exciting to see a young actor take on a challenging role, and 13-year-old Alex Weisman is no exception. He ably balances both sides of Nathan: a rambunctious young boy peeing in the bushes, rattling off an incessant repertoire of knock-knock jokes, and a young man questioning the world around him while hanging on his mother's sleeve. Weisman sustains the long monologues at the beginning and end of the play very well, with a resourceful use of tone and cadence that almost seems improvisational. He confides in the audience in a way that a child might narrate something to a neighbor -- at times tentative, shuffling his feet, at other times wildly animated.

Bridget Connors, a recent addition to the South Florida theater scene, is outstanding in the role of Rachel. To be a young woman in the final stages of a terminal illness and not appear overly tragic is quite a challenge, and she pulls it off. While playing a primarily down-to-earth mother and wife, Connors possesses something special from the moment she steps on-stage, as if she is shrouded in an otherworldliness that draws us to her. Although she expresses all the expected emotions of fear, rage, and sadness in the most human and believable of ways, her presence is magical and ethereal.

This can be attributed in part to the way the other actors shape their characters around the development of Connors' role. Rachel is the play's emotional and intellectual axis. Her illness is what has jettisoned the family from its spiritual and emotional center, and the other characters reflect that in their insightful use of body language. Apart from the rabbi, with whom she has a powerful confrontation, the other characters rarely interact with Rachel face to face. Dave stands behind her and holds her. Sarah sits beside her and offers her a shoulder on which to rest her head. Nathan throws his arms around her neck or playfully tugs at her wrist. This subtlety on the part of the cast is a reminder that we learn as much about a character from the rest of the cast as we do from the character herself.

As the desperate husband trying to be cheerful, Cantor gives a performance that feels somewhat forced at first. When the façade later cracks, revealing a man trying to protect the last few shreds of his identity, Dave becomes a much more interesting character. The same transformation occurs in Sarah, who is the nice but rather bothersome aunt until she and Dave start talking theology. Dave and Sarah confront each other's religious ideas, and more important, they explore each other's motives for upholding these ideas in a powerful and intellectually compelling dialogue.

Despite the many viewpoints it explores, The Legacy never comes off as a staged theological expedition. This can be largely attributed to Harelik's script, which remains grounded in the reality of the dramatic situation, and to Rafael de Acha's direction. De Acha ensures that the emotional resonance never falls disproportionately on one point of view. What could be sentimental, frantic, or condemnatory remains realistic, as evinced by the rabbi's conversation with Rachel. In response to her eternal question, "Why me?" he responds with an astounding, "Why shouldn't it happen to you?" The Legacy is not about vindicating the supremacy of one particular religion. Rather it is an affirmation of the inherent human need to question.