Theater review: “We Are the Levinsons” is about sending parents on their last journey

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: April 23, 2017 at 1:36 pm | UPDATED: April 24, 2017 at 11:29 am

The original article can be found HERE. 

Our parents bring us into this world — and we often have the challenge of doing the opposite, helping them to leave.

The transition can be painful or redemptive, but is usually filled with deep emotions — as is the powerful and touching world premiere, “We Are the Levinsons”, from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Although the title suggests a very personal story about one family — and indeed, it was inspired by playwright Wendy Kout’s last years with her parents — its theme resonates universally.

The “we” in the title could actually apply to all of us; we are the Levinsons, dealing in our shared humanity, whatever the circumstances, with joy and grief as we struggle to live with — and without — those we love.

We first meet Nancy Marvy as Lil, the lively and advice-spewing matriarch of the family, and center of her husband Lenny’s universe, on her birthday. She and her daughter Rosie rub each other the wrong way, and Rosie and her daughter Sara’s antagonistic relationship seems to mirror that dysfunction.

Robert Dorfman is spectacular as Lenny, who becomes the pivot point of the play. His sense of humor and mischievous smile soften Lil and Rosie’s clashes. But as age and loss take their toll, his loving relationship with his only daughter also changes. Dorfman keeps the character riveting and sympathetic throughout.

Melinda Kordich is strong and believable as the stressed daughter Rosie, and Adelin Phelps makes a convincingly angry and contemptuous Sara.  Alyssa DiVirgilio gives transgender caregiver Grace the virtue of her name, as she helps to midwife the family into new lives.

Kout’s play stresses the importance of family — of love — even when the members of a clan don’t always get along. Grace provides a wonderful outsider’s perspective that eventually helps Rosie and Sara to grasp the preciousness of their bond.

As the story takes unexpected turns, director Kurt Schweickhardt helps us navigate shifts in a way that feels natural. Emotional intensity retains strength without the interruption of an intermission.

This is heartbreaking stuff, but there are also wonderful laughs and likable characters that imbue us with hope. It leaves you with a sense that new beginnings are possible, even in the wake of difficult endings.

IF YOU GO

  • What: “We Are the Levinsons”
  • Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy, St. Paul
  • When: Through May 14
  • Tickets: $20-34
  • Information: mnjewishtheatre.org; 651-647-4315
  • Capsule: A wonderful world premiere, with humor and heart 

Review: 'Promised land' takes on new meaning in tale of Jewish slave owner

By LISA BROCK | Special to the Star Tribune
FEBRUARY 6, 2017 — 2:27PM

The original article can be found HERE.

Near the end of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Whipping Man,” three men sit on the floor of a ransacked Southern mansion after the Civil War, celebrating a makeshift Passover meal.

One, a recently freed slave, segues from reciting the ritual language of the Seder into singing the African-American spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” It’s a moment fraught with pain and illumination that binds together this play’s disparate threads as tightly as a knot.

Matthew Lopez’s play delves into a little-considered facet of history: Many Jews in the South owned slaves and raised them in their beliefs. At the same time, Lopez takes a hard look at the legacy of slavery, the dynamics of power and the meaning of faith, giving this work a sense of immediacy.

The play opens in a thunderstorm as Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Riley O’Toole) staggers home, wounded and delirious, at the end of the Civil War. He finds his house in ruins and his family fled, leaving behind only Simon, a former slave played by Warren C. Bowles. The two men are soon joined by John (JuCoby Johnson), another former slave who’s taken to looting abandoned homes and bingeing on stolen liquor. Over three days, while these men deal with such grim tasks as the amputation of Caleb’s gangrenous leg, they reveal closely held secrets, lies and existential dilemmas.

Simon serves as the drama’s moral touchstone, a patriarchal embodiment of conscience, and Bowles lends the role a beautifully understated yet powerful authority. In contrast to his quiet rectitude and stoic faith, the two younger men flail in frenetic confusion. Johnson’s John is a mercurial gadfly whose scathing verbal repartee descends into stuttering incoherence as he reveals the physical and psychic damage lifelong slavery has inflicted upon him. O’Toole teeters between arrogance and tears as Caleb is forced to examine the ugly reality behind his illusions of a romantic South.

“The Whipping Man” tends more toward talk than action (aside from the gruesome amputation) but noted actress Sally Wingert, in a solid directorial debut, maintains a taut pace right through to the harrowing conclusion. Michael Hoover’s set, the skeletal husk of an antebellum mansion, and Paul Epton’s atmospheric lighting reinforce the bleakness of these characters’ situations as they must each forge a new path.

Penumbra Theatre mounted this play in 2009, but MJTC deserves credit for recognizing that its timeliness and the powerful conundrum it embodies merit a luminous second look.

Theater review: ‘The Whipping Man’ spotlights our past, illuminates our today

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: February 5, 2017 at 1:33 pm | UPDATED: February 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm

The original article can be found HERE.

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, that horrific episode in America’s history still casts a shadow over our country.

“The Whipping Man”, Matthew Lopez’s award-winning play set at the end of the war in Richmond, Virginia, shows some of the reasons why—but it does much more. It also explores the idea of freedom—and how our choices can enslave us and those we touch, or can deliver us to liberty.

This isn’t the first time Lopez’s play has been staged in St. Paul (Penumbra did it), but it’s the first time beloved actress Sally Wingert has directed a show. Her production shines in spite of the setting’s stormy nights; from the casting and depth of the acting to the staging and set, she has broken open the power of the play.

Warren C. Bowles anchors the action of the three-person show in a compelling performance as Simon, a longtime slave of the wealthy DeLeon family. He was raised to be Jewish, like his masters, and follows an inner compass that guides him to “do what’s right” even if that means saving the life of one who used to order him around (and still wants to).

He admonishes and advises two young men, one white and one black, that he calls “two peas in a pod.” Although they grew up together, their closeness was shattered by an event that transformed their brotherly relationship into harsh “master” and “slave” roles.

The young men are both clearly hiding something and flailing at life—and we gradually learn how their choices have shackled them. Riley O’Toole is powerful as Caleb DeLeon, the son of the household and a wounded Confederate soldier—who barely manages to make his way home, only to find everyone gone from the half-destroyed mansion except for loyal, hopeful Simon.

Former slave John (JuCoby Johnson) moves in and out of the house, angry, drinking, looting—clearly being devoured by something from within. Wingert gives him wide-ranging restlessness as he moves up and down the spiral stairs and roams back and forth across the stage like a caged animal in stark contrast to the immobile, wounded Caleb, whose limited range suggests how his authority has shrunk.

The show also grapples with love versus possession as it considers the results of liaisons between white masters and black slave women. Can someone truly love you if they have no choice in the relationship?

This fine production of an intense, riveting play slices through lies to reveal what freedom really demands—intersecting events of our world today in a canny, disturbing way.

“The Whipping Man”

  • Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul
  • When: Through February 26
  • Tickets: $20-34, $12 student rush
  • Information:  mnjewishtheatre.org; 651-647-4315

Review: "The Highwaymen" at History Theatre and "The Whipping Man" Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

Cherry and Spoon
Monday, February 6, 2017

The original review can be found HERE.

Yesterday, when most of the world was watching some sporting event on TV, I saw two plays in St. Paul that spoke to the African American experience. When I sat down to write about one or the other today, I found that I couldn't separate the two. Maybe it's just because I saw them on the same day, but it seems like the two plays really speak to each other. History Theatre's world premiere of The Highwaymen and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production of The Whipping Man ("one of the most widely produced new American plays of the last several seasons") essentially tell the same story, 90 years apart, one in St. Paul, Minnesota and one in Richmond, Virginia. A story that continues to occur today in cities and small towns across the country. A story of black people being sent to the whipping man, of being sold South, of having their homes bulldozed to make way for "progress," of being imprisoned at a disproportional rate, of being denied education, of being shot by the police for walking down the wrong street. Both of these plays are really excellent productions, not always easy to watch, that shed light on one of the most important issues of our time.

...

The Whipping Man by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center

From St. Paul in 1956 to Richmond in 1865 - same show, different channel. The Civil War has just ended, freeing the slaves, but Simon (Warren C. Bowles) is waiting in the war-destroyed DeLeon family home for his former master to return and give him the money he promised him upon winning his freedom. The master's son Caleb (Riley O'Toole) returns from the war, injured and under suspicious circumstances. Former slave John (JuCoby Johnson) also returns to the home he grew up in, also under suspicious circumstances. The story plays out on Michael Hoover's realistic set of shabby southern home, far removed from its former glory.

In a new twist to the Civil War drama, the DeLeon family is Jewish, as are their slaves. The three men come together to celebrate the Seder meal (which commemorates the freeing of slaves in ancient Egypt), and discuss their shared faith and complicated family history. Caleb and Simon insist that the DeLeons are "good" slave-owners, they treated their slaves well and only whipped them when absolutely necessary, but John insists that a slave is still a slave. Caleb and John grew up together and were close as brothers, until Caleb realized that he owned John. Caleb is in love with Simon's daughter Sara, but what kind of love is that if he also owns her?

The play beautifully and painfully illustrates the intricacies of the slave/master relationship, one that has had and continues to have lasting effects on our country (see above). This is another incredible cast that makes you feel every one of their intense emotions, and you would never know that this is TC theater veteran Sally Wingert's directing debut, so all around wonderful is this production.

We're only 150 years past slavery, which isn't very long in the course of human history. Slavery was a seriously messed up and incredibly complicated system, so it's no wonder we're still pretty messed up 150 years later. And just because we Minnesotans live north of the Mason-Dixon line doesn't mean racism hasn't happened and doesn't continue to happen here. To paraphrase a line in The Highwaymen, the racism of the North (e.g., Rondo) is the same as the racism of the South (e.g., slavery), it just looks different, with a nicer face. Racism is so ingrained in us and our country, in ways we don't even realize. We need a complete paradigm shift. I don't know how that's going to happen, but I do know that knowing our history, not just facts and figures but how human lives were affected, and making and supporting theater that gives voice to the voiceless and engenders empathy and understanding across cultures can only help. Both of these plays are powerful examples of that, and the casts and creative teams have done well by the stories they're telling.

The Highwaymen and The Whipping Man both continue through February 26. Please see one or both of these plays, remember our history, open your ears, mind, and heart, have a conversation, and help us do better than we've done in the past and attempt to remedy the wrongs that have been done. As Timothy Howard reminds us, "keep your eyes open!"