Ritual gatherings to commemorate family milestones are often fraught with emotions that strain family ties. Such events have a way of reinforcing old roles and strictures that, in the rest of their lives, family members have left behind. For some families these are the only times the entire group gets together. The unveiling service commonly practiced by American Jews is such an occasion. It marks the installation of a memorial stone at the departed family member's gravesite, held any time after the sheloshim, or thirty-day mourning period until the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death. An unveiling is a far less ritualized event than a funeral, with only immediate family and the closest friends typically present, and has no set liturgy. Ritual without structure.
The Last Schwartz, Deborah Zoe Laufer's play impressively mounted by Minnesota Jewish Theater Company, is set on the occasion of the unveiling for Emanuel Schwartz. Manny's four grown children gather in their childhood home, a house built by their grandparents in rural upstate New York. Norma assumes the position of family head and keeper of traditions. Among them, she alone still practices Judaism with any fidelity. She is also self-appointed guardian of their parents' home, constantly barking things like "get your feet off Mama's table." She takes charge of organizing the unveiling service, assuming none of the others care. She is right, but her presumptions still grate on the others.
Brother Herb is a financier, who doesn't seem to have strong feelings about much, except a desire to keep things low key and keep Norma off his back. Herb's weepy wife Bonnie can never do anything to suit Norma. Bonnie's dream of having children has gone unmet after several miscarriages. Youngest brother Gene is an aspiring director whose career thus far has taken him to TV commercials. He arrives in the unexpected company of Kia, an air-headed, well-endowed model he cast in a recent ad campaign.
The fourth Schwartz sibling, Simon, sits silently, dressed in white and peering through a telescope. Eventually, we realize that he is possibly autistic. He was never diagnosed and is high functioning—in fact, he is an astronomer and had been working at an observatory in Australia—but none the less, his mind marches to its own beat. He is also going blind and is developing intolerance to tactile stimulation.
As in most such plays, an array of issues surface during the family's brief time together, including the future of the ancestral house itself. Norma wants to keep the house and pass it on to the children. Herb wants to sell it, a burdensome expense they will never use, and besides, he points out, "what children?," noting the absence of a new generation of Schwartzes. This launches Norma on a harangue about the survival of the Jewish people. Simon calmly interjects that not only Jews, but the entire human race, are not much longer for this earth. Other issues course among them, as secrets and long ago hurts spill out. Amid this brood, Kia is a loose cannon, stirring a mix of clueless indelicacy and cunning mischief.
In the early going, The Last Schwartz feels like a well-written domestic comedy, with frequent laugh lines and the personality of each character quickly established so that we can catch the humor in their true-to-form responses to each other. As we get deeper into the collective Schwartz psyche, we are shown that a residue of pain is part of their family inheritance. Laufer's adept writing handles this transition with tenderness, while keeping the play aloft with humor so that it never bogs down in maudlin excess.
It is also extremely smart. For example, when Gene begins to be embarrassed by Kia's non-stop, vapid chatter, he tells her "you seem different to me here than in the city." She assures him she's the same person, and he realizes she is right—it is he that is different. The vestiges of his family have rekindled standards he has allowed to lapse. In spite of himself, he is still the youngest son of the Schwartz family, at least in the presence of their company.
Warren Bowles directs with an affectionate hand for these people, all well-meaning, given the roles and circumstances life has handed them. Their flaws which could easily cause us to turn away, yet each Schwartz family member—even brittle, judgmental Norma—reveals a deep core of humanity that asks us to care about them. There is something of an enduring Schwartz family essence, even without any of them knowing what that is. But it is rapidly fraying, and one of them may well be the last Schwartz.
Laufer gives the female actors in more to work with than the males. Laura Stearns Adams is superb as Norma, a fireball of angry righteousness who sees it as her duty to uphold family and Jewish identity, keeping the shadows of her own heartache well hidden. She is calling Kia and Bonnie back to their assigned table-setting tasks, disgusted by their dereliction of duty. Later she reveals the deep hurt that she carries with her and draws us to her side, even after it has been so easy to hate her. Heidi Fellner plays Bonnie, impressing early on as a whimpering, needy and dependent woman, but revealing depth and strength as we learn more about the path she has traveled. Emily Dussault is hilarious as totally self-absorbed Kia, whose belief system is based on having fun and whose lack of boundaries is shockingly genuine. When a moment arises for Kia to show actual feelings for someone else's plight, Dussault makes palpable Kia's mighty effort to attain a semblance of empathy.
Matt Sciple is rock solid as Herb, long suffering in abiding Bonnie's neediness, and long suffering in tolerating Norma's shrewish dominance over the clan. We feel his pain in listening to Bonnie's rehash of her suffering, even as he distractedly works on a crossword puzzle, as well as his anxious cringe every time he fears that Norma is about to lower the boom. Damian Leverett is charming as Gene, easygoing with everyone, then feeling sabotaged by the dormant clutches of family expectations and pecking order so that he begins to feel uncomfortable with himself. Corey DiNardo is especially affecting as Simon, using a lack of affect in his voice to draw all the more importance to what Simon says. At first we hear Simon as uttering nonsense, adrift in an interior world beyond reason, but little by little DiNardo reveals a logic in Simon's perception, until it holds as much logic as the tightly wound Jewish observance and reverence for imperfect parents that drives Norma's life.
Michael Hoover has designed a modest living-dining room for the Schwartz family home, with the cozy feel of a house that has served three generations and is full of the books, photos and tchotchkes acquired over that time span. Michael Wangen's lighting is especially effective as night descends, when the Schwartz family—unable to sleep—have their darkest exchanges.
Throughout The Last Schwartz's swiftly moving ninety minutes I kept wondering about Simon. The circumstances of his life are not clearly rolled out. How does he function away from his family? How did he make it so far in life in spite of being in an orbit outside the rest of the family, and for that matter the rest of society? The ending leaves that question as a puzzlement, suggesting that perhaps it is by being outside the orbits of familiar and societal norms that survival is possible. Laufer has crafted a play that is funny, moving, authentic and provocative, and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has given it an excellent production that is well worth seeing.
The Last Schwartz, through November 11, 2018, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer; Director: Warren C. Bowles; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Mark Tietz
Cast: Laura Stearns Adams (Norma) Corey DiNardo (Simon), Emily Dussault (Kia), Heidi Fellner (Bonnie), Damien Leverett (Gene), Matt Sciple (Herb).
ORIGINAL SOURCE: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/minn/minn784.html