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Chicago by John Olson

The Invasion of Skokie
Chicago Dramatists
Guest Critic Richard Green

The Invasion of Skokie
Mick Weber and Cindy Gold
Not every brand new play has to revolve around some bizarre disease, or a dead child, or turn on a non-chronological structure, to please a modern audience. Sometimes, all it takes are great plotting, great events, and great characters. Shocking, I know. And this particular new play has all three of those elements, and captivates us, too, with delightful humanity and a few powerful, wrenching twists of fate.

Now, admittedly, Steven Peterson's script does reach back in time—thirty-two years, which may give him an edge in terms of the dramatic possibilities: conflicts between parents and children are a lot more vivid in the shadow of Old World sensibilities and, in the middle of 1978, there just happened to be a very incendiary Nazi march planned in Skokie, Illinois, a town with about 40,000 Jewish residents. But even with those built-in theatrical advantages, some very elegant plotting and character development and an excellent cast and crew are all added on top to gloriously fulfill the comic and dramatic potential of a generational clash and one modern Jewish family's response to the threat of neo-Nazis.

The subtitle for The Invasion of Skokie could well have been A Man Under Siege, with the planned march, and a proposed mixed-marriage that sets off just as much of the backyard fireworks here. Mick Weber is excellent as the patriarch of the Kaplan family and, like everyone else on stage, he manages to do at least two things at once: using humor to disguise discipline; or authority, likewise, to disguise fear. At times he may seem a bit like a Jewish Archie Bunker, but when Mr. Weber is finally ready to crack into a million pieces near the end, it's something far more impressive: revealing the inevitable decay of a life built on "doing the right thing," when the whole definition of "right" seems to have left this middle-aged man behind at some unnoticed fork in the road.

Cindy Gold plays his wife, full of quiet, watchful awareness, a clear eye, physical grace, and a wonderfully subtle sense of humor. And, though she holds much more power in the story than anyone else, she keeps it all under wraps until everything's going down the drain. She and Mr. Weber, as wife and husband, start the show with a hilarious scene of overlapping dialog, as each holds a conversation on their own 1970s-style corded telephone handset, tangling and untangling cords, with two or three wild comic turns in just that one minute or so, in the couple's very believable 1970s backyard. The most glorious little piece of set decoration, for those who've ever had to bring a period piece to the stage themselves, is a hideous table lamp, just inside, beyond the sliding glass doors and vertical blinds: a great, gaudy light fixture complete with a clear protective plastic cover over an equally hideous "decorative" lampshade. I'm not sure if the plastic slipcover protects the lamp from the environment, or the other way around.

In some quarters, this might be termed a "couch play," though of course the couch here is an old metal "glider" painted to match the vintage 1960s wrought-iron table and chairs at center stage. But the young lovers in Skokie transcend the usual melodramatic ups and downs, with their twinkling eyes and carefully measured maturity, even in their most dangerous clinches. Tracey Kaplan as Debbie Kaplan is the bright and vivacious young corporate lawyer whose mind turns more easily to a liberal reading of the First Amendment when it comes to the problem of the neo-Nazis, never failing to outrage her father, as you'd expect. And Bradford R. Lund is adorable as the tenderhearted boy she's known for years, who's played "Shabbes goy" for the whole family (but who is, of course, not Jewish himself). Layer upon layer of complications ensue.

But perhaps the most charming performance of the evening comes from Michael Joseph Mitchell, who initially seems like nothing more than slightly ridiculous comic relief (though he is pure comic relief in act two, coming on dressed like the Mikado). Mr. Mitchell, as Uncle Howie, becomes a figure equal to each of the others in dramatic stature by the end of the night, though it may seem a highly unlikely prospect in his opening scenes. Credit Mr. Mitchell, director Richard Perez, and writer Peterson for all of that, and everyone involved for a surprisingly exciting emotional journey.

Through October 10, 2010, at the corner of Chicago and Milwaukee (there's a Blue Line El stop just out front). The entrance is around back. Some metered parking is available. For more information call (312) 633-0630 or visit them online at www.chicagodramatists.org.

Cast
Mick Weber*: Morry Kaplan
Cindy Gold*: Sylvia Kaplan
Tracey Kaplan: Debbie Kaplan
Michael Joseph Mitchell*: Howie Green

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association

Crew
Director: Richard Perez
Stage Manager: Jenniffer J. Thusing
Public Relations: Noreen Heron & Associates
Production Manager: Emily Duffin
Assistant Director: Emmi Hilger
Technical Director: Caleb McAndrew
Assistant Costume Designer: Rosella Nitti
Graphic Design & Photographer: Paul Grigonis
Interns: Shannon Deep, Romi Barta, Chris Diaz, Sarah Bowden, Courtenay Cholovich, Jay Koepke
Box Office Manager: Avella Holling
Master Electrician: Andrew M. Iverson
Assistant Props Designer: Romi Barta


Photos: Jeff Pines

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-- John Olson



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