Jew Review: ‘Shul’ Expertly Wrestles With Modern Judaism

Charles Numrich and Nancy Marvy in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Charles Numrich and Nancy Marvy in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

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?

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

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.


‘Collected Stories’ gathers compelling ideas, performances

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Ashley Rose Montondo, left, and Maggie Bearmon Pistner are in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “Collected Stories.” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2018 at 3:35 pm | UPDATED: February 26, 2018 at 11:52 am

In a two-character play, each of the actors has a lot riding on her shoulders. A strong show requires stellar performances. Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo show us how it’s done in “Collected Stories” from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Pistner vividly portrays a famous Jewish author (Ruth Steiner), as prickly as she is brilliant, who mentors promising young students from the college where she teaches. Montondo aptly conveys the anxiety and awkwardness of an immature college girl (Lisa Morrison) who desperately wants to impress the author she worships.

That intersection of an aging, irritated diva with a dorky, raw talent sets up lots of plot-driving conflict while grappling with questions of ethics in writing, professional jealousy, the sad march of time and how the events of our lives — and the people we meet — profoundly shape us.

Literary questions about truth and fiction resonate in our era of supposed “fake news.” If an author exaggerates or makes up events when talking about her real life, is that permissible fiction — or lies?  If an author mines her life for people and plot points to turn into fiction, is that acceptable in spite of whom she might hurt, or is it too close to reality?

Every novel has a disclaimer at the front which states that it’s a work of fiction and any character’s resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental. But what if the resemblance is NOT coincidental? What if the author steals sensitive and private material from someone else’s life, spewing it out there for all the world to see?

These are questions worth grappling with, and playwright Donald Margulies sets them up well. He also preemptively signals the show’s finale when Lisa tells Ruth that she doesn’t like the ending of her latest story and Ruth replies that real life is not always tidy or happy; it’s messy.

The ending to the play seems unfinished because the relationship between the two characters is not resolved after the final onstage conflict. That feels disappointing, but is in line with Ruth’s (and presumably Margulies’) philosophy on fictional denouements.

In addition to staging a compelling production that she cast brilliantly, director Jennie Ward partnered with talented production artists who add much to the show.

Michael Hoover’s elaborate design of Ruth’s apartment really conveys the personality of the author and gives Ward many different places to play with the characters, keeping the one-set production dynamic. The costume, lighting, sound and prop designers also deserve kudos for bringing the scenes — and ’90s era — to life.

“Collected Stories” is a fascinating show of conflict and ideas with spirited characters — and an ending that doesn’t put a period on their story.

If you go

  • What: “Collected Stories”
  • Where:  Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
  • When: Through March 18
  • Tickets: $38-$23; 651-647-4315 or
  • Capsule:  Compelling performances and ideas