Jew Review: ‘Hanukkah Lights In The Big Sky’

Jews are called upon to bring light to the world,” Isaac Pearl explains to his friend Katie Martin, in Buffy Sedlachek’s Hanukkah Lights In The Big Sky. “Right now we need as much light as we can get.”

Sedlachek’s play is this year’s family-friendly Hanukkah show at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, and Barbara Brooks, the MJTC artistic director, chose this for a reason.

“The play tells the remarkable story of a community coming together to take a stand against racism,” Brooks wrote in the program. “With the tremendous increase in racist activity and horrific exhibitions of hate, this play is so important.”

The show is set in Billings, Montana, in 1993, and is based on the true story of a brick that was thrown through the window of a young child’s bedroom because of the menorah that he had on his window sill. That moment occurred as the residents of Billings faced a rising tide of white supremacy.

Isaac Pearl’s window was the one broken. His mother Tammie, and Katie’s mother, Lori, started a movement that became “Not In Our Town,” where people all off faiths and background banded together against the bullying tactics of groups like Northwest United Skinheads, Ku Klux Klan, and Aryan Nation.

This is the third time that MJTC has put this show on, which Brooks had commissioned in 2004 (it also was showed in 2012). Shelli Place, who is directing this show for the first time, said she didn’t see the show either of the first two times it was performed, so she is able to put her own perspective on the show.

“When I read a play the very first time, I always have a pencil in my hand, and I write down my gut instincts as I go through the entire play,” she said. “I also treat the kids as professional actors. I don’t baby them. They get the same amount of attention and the same amount of direction. And with the way that I talked to actors, I talked to them just the same and they respond beautifully.”

That, they did. Liam Beck-O’Sullivan and Natty Woods played the leading children in the show. The best friends on stage had terrific chemistry, with the requisite awkwardness that you’d expect from pre-teen friends of opposite genders.

The adults in the show also do brilliantly, led by Lee H. Adams. He plays eight different characters in the show and is very much the angel on Isaac’s shoulder. Amanda Cate Fuller plays Tammie, and excellently portrays the fears that people often still have, while trying to put on a brave face for her son. Elizabeth Efteland rounds out the cast – all of whom made their MJTC debut – as Katie’s mom Lori, who demonstrates remarkable allegiance with Tammie and Isaac – regardless of the religious differences.

Importantly, on the opening morning of the show’s run, there were elementary school kids from Friends School of Minnesota and St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. As happens with the Hannukah shows, they are part of the play. Adams, when playing the teacher Mr. Brown, addresses the kids like they are in his class – and the audience played to it. It was clear – at least from that group – that the lessons taught weren’t over their heads at all.

The show addresses big issues that, we as Jews, have been staring down for centuries. And it addresses them in a way that is accessible, interesting, and easy-to-follow. But here in 21st century Minnesota, we should be so lucky to have the allies that Isaac and Tammie had in their Billings neighbors 28 years ago.

‘Hannukah Lights in the Big Sky’ runs through Dec. 22 at the Highland Park Community Center (1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul). On Dec. 15, TC Jewfolk and PJ Library have tickets available for a discounted price, and a meet-and-greet with actors after the show. .



“Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky”

Liam Beck-O'Sullivan, Amanda Cate Fuller, Elizabeth Efteland, and Natty Woods.

"> Liam Beck-O'Sullivan, Amanda Cate Fuller, Elizabeth Efteland, and Natty Woods.

Liam Beck-O'Sullivan, Amanda Cate Fuller, Elizabeth Efteland, and Natty Woods.

Review by Arthur Dorman

At one point in Buffy Sedlachek's play Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky, Isaac Pearl, a Jewish grade-school boy living in Billings, Montana, explains to his best friend Katie what "mitzvah" means. While, technically, the Hebrew word means commandment—a deed prescribed by God—it has come to refer generally to a charitable act or a deed worthy of praise. Using the latter meaning, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's remount of this inspiring play, which they commissioned in 2004, is a major mitzvah.

Based on a true story, Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky is set in 1993. Isaac's family, having relocated to Billings where his father is a physician, is enthused to observe Hanukkah while most of the city is preparing for Christmas. Isaac places a menorah in his bedroom window, and during the night someone throws a brick through the window, shattering the glass and destroying his menorah. It is not the first act of anti-Semitism to have recently struck Billings. A Jewish cemetery had been vandalized, and the rabbi's tires slashed. But nothing had been done, and little had even been said.

Shocked by a senseless act that could have gravely injured her child, Isaac's mother Tammy calls the police. When they fail to take her concern seriously, she goes to the Billings Gazette, and they run her story. This draws both positive attention—support for the Pearl family and the Jewish community—and negative, sparking further acts of vandalism against Jews and those who defend the Jews. Katie's mother Lori joins forces with Tammy, speaking at church and PTA groups. They garner the support of the chief of police, who calls for zero tolerance of hate crimes policy. The tide finally turns when the Gazette publishes an editorial lambasting the rash of hate crimes with a full-page picture of a Hanukkah menorah, urging readers to post their paper menorah's in their own windows as a stand against hate.

The actual campaign waged in Billings in 1993 was called "Not in This Town." While Sedlachek's play focuses on acts of anti-Semitism, the reality in Billings at that time was that hate crimes were being committed against African Americans, Native Americans, LGBT people, and other groups, along with Jews. Simplifying the narrative in the play, which runs only one hour, helps to make it accessible to young audiences, and draws focus on a specific part of the greater problem. Still, as stated in the play, Billings was at that time a city of 80,000 with fewer than 500 Jews. Given the broad array of targets for hate, both then and now, a fuller portrayal of the issues, and the limited scope of the solution, could be grist for another, more fully fleshed out play—that would be another mitzvah.

That does not diminish the achievement of those citizens who roused themselves out of apathy, or even worse, their fear of engagement, to stand up for unjustly demonized neighbors. As Lori tells Tammy, these problems have been around for fifty years, and though they do not reflect how the majority of folks in Billings feel, they continue because the majority of people remain silent. As Lori also states, "it's very hard work getting good people to do good things."

The understandable boundaries set by the playwright do not diminish either the importance or the quality of her play. Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky is extremely well written and its characters are completely authentic, with dialogue that rings true throughout. It begins with Tammy telling Isaac a bedtime story about Judah Maccabee, who led the Jewish uprising that Hanukkah celebrates. Once the brick goes through Isaac's window, the play progresses with a dynamic sense of Tammy and Lori's struggle to build the community's resistance even as incidents of hate crimes continue to occur. Sedlachek adds a touch of fantasy, as Judah Maccabee appears to Isaac in his dreams, giving him sage advice and inspiration. However, as Isaac points out to him: "if you are in my head, the answers you give me must also be in my head."

Sedlachek also takes a short cut, having Isaac's father attending an out of town conference while all of this occurs. However, she has created six different characters representing perspectives of the townspeople, and all are played with aplomb by Lee H. Adams—in particular, his take on the progressive-minded teacher and personable, principled police chief. Adams also plays Judah Maccabee, endowing the ancient hero with a sheen of wisdom.

Liam Beck-O'Sullivan is amazing as young Isaac. He takes on the role, with its bouts of boyish exuberance, indignation, fear and introspection, and creates a fully realized character. As Katy, Natty Woods also gives a deeply impressive performance, reaching out as a true friend to Isaac and struggling to understand how these bad things can happen in her town. Amanda Kate Fuller is quite moving as Tammy, concerned foremost for her son, but conveying the strength to take on the larger issues that, if left alone, will continue to hound them. Elizabeth Efteland makes Lori's friendship, support and conviction seem completely authentic.

For being just one hour long, the play has quite a few scene changes. Director Shelli Place keeps them well paced, with near-seamless transitions. She also draws a welcome balance between the heavy-handed business of hate crime and lighter moments depicting Isaac and Katie as just two kids hanging out. I was, however, a bit perplexed by the range of accents among the different characters, some of which sounded like they hailed from different regions of the American south, rather than from the northern Rockies.

Kirby Moore's set is stunning. A background of the Montana mountain skyline establishes this as a region that is both beautiful and harsh. Isaac's bedroom has all-American boy touches, and the teal, peach and sand toned flooring, and grey walls, establish a tasteful home, well in the mainstream, and therefor more shockingly made the target of hate. Paul Epton's lighting depicts bright day retiring into the starry nights of the big sky country, and sound designer Anita Kelling provides atmospheric bridging music between scenes. Barb Portinga's costumes suit the characters perfectly, with the two moms sporting an assortment of comfy sweaters.

This production is the third engagement of Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky since it's 2004 premiere—and its first return since 2012. A lot has changed in our national life since then, making Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky more urgent viewing than ever. Its messages include: that hate targeted against any group, be it for religion, race, national origin, gender, sexual preference, or any other identifying label is an abomination; and if people are willing to step forward, out of their veil of silence, and in a unified manner, even simple actions can make a difference—it has happened before. May this play contribute to making it happen again.

Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky runs through December 22, 2019, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $20.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or visit

Playwright: Buffy Sedlachek; Director: Shelli Place; Scenic Design: Kirby Moore; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Katie Sondrol.

Cast: Lee H. Adams (Judah Maccabee/police officer/Hal - shop owner/Mr. Brown/Pastor Dan/Mr. Jamison/Police Chief Gil Moran/Brian Pearl), Liam Beck-O'Sullivan (Isaac Pearl), Elizabeth Efteland (Lori Martin), Amanda Cate Fuller (Tammy Pearl), Natty Woods (Katie Martin).



Review: 'God' puts the divine one on the psychologist's couch. In "O my God!," the divine one has a crisis of confidence. 

By Rohan Preston Star Tribune OCTOBER 28, 2019 — 2:58PM

By Rohan Preston Star Tribune

OCTOBER 28, 2019 — 2:58PM

God, played by James A. Williams, comes to Ella, Laura Stearns, for therapy in “O my God!” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (photo by SARAH WHITING)

God, played by James A. Williams, comes to Ella, Laura Stearns, for therapy in “O my God!” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (photo by SARAH WHITING)

With so much bloodshed and mayhem in the world, it’s understandable that believers would want to put a few pointed questions to God, if given an audience with the maker of all things. Like, why allow children to suffer? Why can’t we find a cure for cancer? Is ketchup really a vegetable?

Those queries are all from a human perspective and speak to people’s needs. But what if all the world’s chaos itself causes the deity to need a mental health check? What if God is having a personal, nay, godly crisis?

Those questions animate “O my God!,” Israeli playwright Anat Gov’s wryly absurdist one-act that opened Saturday at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Margalit Rodgers, the play puts God (James A. Williams) on a psychologist’s couch.

He needs someone to listen to him and has chosen a single mom with her own issues for a weekend session.

Ella (Laura Stearns) frets over her preverbal teenage son Lior (Sean Carroll), who is on the autism spectrum and has a lot of needs. A nonbeliever, Ella’s sincerest wish is for the cello-playing boy to speak and for rain to break the dry spell gripping the land.

You can see the salient points of the play — and the resolution — coming from miles away. And that’s not because the plot is foreshadowed too heavily by director Robert Dorfman or his admirable trio of actors. It’s just that the questions that are given bodily form in “God” have vexed humanity for millennia, and the show is just offering them up in new packaging.

Like, would God exist without people? That notion comes up as Williams’ God ponders the end times with Stearns’ Ella. And if God is the creator of all things, did God create evil, too? Hmm.

Such big questions present endless conundrums, but they get a really human scale in a production that takes place on Michael Hoover’s messily comforting set.

The performances, too, get at what it is to be human — to search for the divine, to search for answers outside of ourselves.

Williams, who originated the role of real estate developer Roosevelt Hicks in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” on Broadway, gives us an avuncular God. Tuxedoed out like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” and speaking mellifluously like Morgan Freeman, Williams’ God is by turns calm and fretful, a figure with Oz-like secrets. His crisis seems real, even if it offers the people in the story their gifts.

Stearns also is commendable as Ella, showing us her worry and frustrations as well as her eagerness to jump at the opportunity to have a divine audience. Who gets a chance to have God visit you at home and answer your questions? 

The most moving performance comes from Carroll, who, like the character he plays, has autism. Carroll hops like a kangaroo and performs repetitive gestures that hint at the pent-up emotion that Lior has carried for years.

While the play challenges our perceptions of God, it reinscribes notions of patriarchy. The expression “Time’s Up” is invoked by God, who also presents a mathematical question to Ella to see if she can solve it. Those bits are not played with much irony, which is a shame because “God” is a heady but good time that leaves us re-examining notions of the divine. 



Theater review: ‘O my God’ is divine, but not wholly a comedy

By DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA | Special to the Pioneer Press PUBLISHED: October 28, 2019 at 11:57 am | UPDATED: October 28, 2019 at 1:17 pm

By DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: October 28, 2019 at 11:57 am | UPDATED: October 28, 2019 at 1:17 pm

Laura Stearns is Ella and James A. Williams is God in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “O my God!” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Laura Stearns is Ella and James A. Williams is God in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “O my God!” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Never mind your mosques, your temples, your churches: God is speaking evenings and weekends through Nov. 17 in a community center in St. Paul’s Highland neighborhood.

And the Almighty, at least according to the late playwright Anat Gov and her play “O my God!” is in a deep blue funk, feeling impotent and despondent over the world of humans created in the divine image. In the dramatic tradition of the Holy One appearing in atypical forms to unexpected humans, this God is dressed like Marlon Brando in the wedding scene from “The Godfather” and seeks therapeutic assistance from Ella, a secular Jewish psychologist in a modern-day Israeli suburb.

The 100-minute, intermission-less show is as much a theological enterprise as it is a dramatic journey. After her mysterious visitor identifies himself by saying simply, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) and claims his birth date was 5,780 years ago (neatly matching the span from creation to today, according to the Hebrew calendar),  Ella still requires a small miraculous act and some revealed truths to be convinced her patient is who he says he is.

In a series of conversational thrusts and parries that take place in Ella’s cheerily cluttered living room-cum-office (designed by Michael Hoover), doctor and patient embark on a more-or-less Freudian journey to ascertain the nature of God. Is Jehovah best understood as a Jewish mother, kvetching and prodding? A faithful dog, insecure and wanting only for his adoration to be returned? Or an abusive husband, rewarding love and devotion with suffering and hardship?

It’s a fascinating psychological study for Ella, played by Laura Stearns with grimly jovial grit as the single mother of an autistic teenage son. She coaxes God (James A. Williams, sobbing hysterically one moment, flashing menace the next) to think about how he felt when creating the world. To consider why he made the decision to introduce man to what had been a “vast, peaceful safari park.” And to contemplate the possibility that maybe he was just the tiniest bit jealous when the woman he created began stealing focus from the God-Adam bromance.

It sounds like heavy sledding, and in fact Robert Dorfman’s staging for the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company sometimes bogs down with static patches of dialogue. Too, the production doesn’t ever seem to have settled on the purpose behind the presence of Ella’s son, the sometimes-seen Lior (Sean Carroll). But, working with Stearns and Williams, Dorfman is also able to convey this dialogue with the divine as an intellectual and emotional tussle between two worthy adversaries.

The 2008 play is often billed as a comedy, and while it would be wrong to call it a knee-slapper, there’s a certain amount of gently irreverent shtick beneath the seriousness.  Contemplating a world that began with Adam and Eve and now hosts billions of humans, for instance, God observes “When I said, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ I didn’t mean you should always do that.”

In the end, the non-observant Ella decides to embrace God — literally if not quite figuratively. God is perhaps not healed, perhaps not happy, but no longer looking to revoke his promise to Noah. And the audience gets to consider — or ponder anew — if it’s possible to know the mind of God … and if we’d really want to.