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Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 18, 2018

Ben Caplan
Photo by Stoo Metz Photography

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, opening today at 59E59 Theaters, is a poignant tale of Jews who fled to Canada from the pogroms they were subjected to in their native Romania at the turn of the twentieth century. It is a quiet and bittersweet family saga that is full of soft humor, sweet joy, dark despair, and blessed hope. It is also underpinned with a diverse musical score that runs the gamut from klezmer to jazz to Hebraic melodies of faith, all blended into what its effusive narrator calls a "Yiddishkeit music thing."

What we see before us as we enter the theater is a large red shipping container. On it, spelled out in what appears to be Cyrillic lettering, is a word, perhaps a name, looking rather like "Tevye." Clever touch, if that's what is intended. But be aware that what you are about to see is not some Canadian version of Fiddler on the Roof. Even within its 80 minutes, Old Stock has a great deal more to say about the realities of the immigrant experience than what is dealt with in the beloved story of the milkman from Anatevka. Leaving their shtetl is the least of their worries, as we learn by following the outgoing 19-year-old Chaim and the somewhat older and peevish Chaya, from the time they meet in line at the refugee entry station in Halifax.

Old Stock gains a feel of authenticity by drawing on the family history of its playwright, Hannah Moscovitch. It takes us with Chaim and Chaya through years of struggle, moments of joy, and an elemental sorrow, all born from the difficult process of breaking with the past and moving forward into a new life. Through it all, our guide is a character called "The Wanderer," majestically performed by singer-songwriter Ben Caplan. As the dominant presence, Caplan is oversized in every way, with leonine hair and beard, a powerfully gruff and gravely voice, and a predilection for spouting the F-word at every opportunity.

Chaim (Chris Weatherstone, doubling on woodwinds) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady, who plays violin) "meet cute" in 1908 as they stand line for medical examinations that will determine whether they will be admitted into the country. He has a rash (which, fortunately, turns out not to be typhus); she has a cough (not tuberculosis). While they wait, Chaim strikes up a friendly conversation, which Chaya responds to with indifference. They go their separate ways, but not long after, they meet up again in Montreal. It is there that, while they barely know one another, they agree to marry. As the months go by, their conversations are brief and usually focused on practical matters, yet often there is a cautiously flirtatious twinge to them, even as Chaya maintains a scoffing tone.

Through this period of their marriage, they are accompanied by Caplan and the rest of the wonderful on-stage musicians (joining Caplan, Weatherstone, and Coady are Graham Scott on keybard and accordion, and Jamie Kronick on percussion). All told, the show incorporates nine songs, most of which were written by Mr. Caplan and Christian Barry (who also directs). Some are narratives; one jaunty number passes along bits of amusingly anachronistic wisdom ("Always have a bit of salt with tequila/Don't smoke your stash if you're gonna be a dealer"); yet another extols the virtues of an active sex life. But as we follow Chaim and Chaya's slowly-evolving relationship, we come to understand that both are choking on deeply-buried sorrows which will take a long time to emerge into the light of day. Only then can they begin to heal and find renewing love.

In keeping with changes the pair is going through, the music likewise evolves over time. The most startling moment comes when Caplan suddenly drops his swaggering demeanor, dons a prayer shawl, and transforms before our eyes into a cantor to sing two Hebrew melodies, one celebratory and the other deeply mournful. The latter is so painfully moving, and comes at time of such a low ebb for the couple, that when he is done, Caplan turns to the audience and quietly asks, "You guys all right out there?"

Fortunately, the dark clouds move off, and we are granted a genuinely cathartic and uplifting ending that takes us into the present day. The shipping container closes on this unusual and impressive production by the 2B Theatre Company. It has been a remarkable journey, reminding us not only of the wave of immigrants who crossed the ocean a century ago, but also of those who now are living as wandering and lost refugees in search of a new home.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story
Through April 22
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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