One of the brilliant parts of Shul at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is that you don’t know what city the play is set in. It’s playing in the cozy confines of the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul, but it could be in any inner city, anywhere in America. The only setting for the show is the dilapidated inside of Eitz Chaim, the synagogue at the heart of the show that had its world premiere on April 27. It’s the themes that emerge that make it a timeless story built for modern-day Judaism.
Opening night of the show did start on a somewhat somber note, with Artistic Director Barbara Brooks dedicating the show the victims of the Poway, Calif., Chabad shooting earlier that day – six months to the day of the Tree of Life (Eitz Chaim) in Pittsburgh.
But from there, the small-but-mighty cast took over, and first-time director Robert Dorfman – an MJTC acting veteran – brought the struggle that playwright Sheldon Wolf put on the page to life. The shul, like many small inner-city congregations, is left to reckon with its future. Move? Sell? Share space with another religious institution?
At the heart of it all, to some degree, is fear of change. The world is changing around the shul, and the characters have all grown up in the neighborhood to watch it happen – for better or worse. Even without seeing anything outside of the walls of Eitz Chaim, the actors vividly describe the crumbling of the neighborhood around them.
Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)
With only eight characters, the interactions have to be crisp, and over the course of the two acts, Nancy Marvy’s Miriam and Raye Birk’s Nate lead the cast through an emotional ride. Nate talks of curling up next to his father under his tallit on the pews, while Miriam talks of the comfort she found at Eitz Chaim in tough times. Ivey Award-winner Charles Numrich brings incredible levity to the show as Ezra, the Yoda-esque wise elder. Avi Aharoni plays Abe, the millennial president of the synagogue (“We had an election. I lost,” he griped), who has the challenging responsibility of ushering his dwindling congregation to a decision they don’t want to have to make.
Dexieng Yang and Jôher Coleman bring wit to Heidi and John – two of the unexpected characters to the show. Nathaniel Fuller’s Golden wears his anger well, and Paul Shoenack’s Friedman is the utility player who brings levity and seriousness.
One of the great debates in the show – and seemingly Judaism itself – is the idea of purpose. What purpose does a crumbling building serve? What purpose do we have in our congregations or our communities? These ideas are wrestled with throughout the show and are well articulated. Hope may be a dangerous thing, as Ezra reminds the congregation, but after all, isn’t hope part of faith?
Although the ending – literally the last thing that happens before cutting to the black – felt somewhat unsatisfying – everything that led to it was wonderfully done. The MJTC is closing its 24th season on a high note.