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Leah, the Forsaken

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 17, 2017

Regina Gibson
Photo by Alex Roe

A xenophobic assault on immigrants and a forbidden inter-religious love story make the Metropolitan Playhouse's revival of Augustin Daly's 19th century melodrama Leah, the Forsaken as timely as today's news. And the direction, performances, and design elements combine for a most impressive and cohesive production in service to the company's mission of exploring seldom-seen plays from the past.

Dating from the mid-1800s, the play tells the tale of Leah (Regina Gibson), a Jewish refugee who has fled religious prosecution in Hungary, only to find herself the object of hatred by the Christian citizens of a town in Austria, where she seeks temporary refuge. Only a few stand up for her, most notably Madalena (Noelia Antweiler), who takes pity on Leah and strives to protect her.

The playwright makes no bones about the anti-Semitic sentiments of the townspeople, made all the more disconcerting by the direction of Francis X. Kuhn, who has the cast perform in a more naturalistic manner rather than the overblown style often associated with melodramas. At the performance I attended, you could hear members of the audience gasping aloud at such venomously spewed lines as these: "Is the Jewess to be admitted here to poison our wells and fountains? Is she to bewitch our children that they become infected?"

For her part, Leah appreciates Madalena's kindness, but she is not interested in pity or charity. She is content to hole up in the woods, where she is caring for another group of refugees she has encountered, including a young Christian woman, her child, and an elderly blind man.

There is another reason why Leah has not moved on, however. She has met Madalena's dear friend Rudolf (Jon Berry), and despite their religious differences, the two have fallen in love. As slim as their chances are of finding acceptance as a couple, those chances are further damaged by someone else who is "poisoning the well," metaphorically speaking. It is Schoolmaster Berthold (Jeffrey Grover), the personification of villainy. It is he who is stirring up the villagers to go after Leah and drive her away. His biting anti-Semitic rants are so vitriolic that the village priest, Father Herman (John Ingle), is moved to publicly disavow Berthold's actions and urges Christian charity.

But the schoolmaster, who holds secrets of his own, is determined to keep Rudolf and Leah apart and drive Leah away. And so the two plot strands collide, with charity and love on one side, and hatred and persecution on the other. In this tug-of-war, Rudolf succumbs to false information he is given about Leah and allows himself to be convinced that she is willing to take a bribe of gold to go away. He breaks off with her, and she retreats, overcome with sorrow and bitterness. In the end, whatever reconciliation that might come will not restore what has been lost.

It is not difficult to understand why Leah, the Forsaken was a popular hit in its time. There was a significant emigration of German Jews fleeing to the United States to escape religious persecution in the second half of the 19th century. They and welcoming Americans would have certainly connected with the story. And it is certainly one that still resonates. This production is a real winner for the Metropolitan Playhouse. The performances and creative elements come together in a harmonious collaboration, including Michael LeBron's set design, the scenic paintings that surround the audience, the sound design by Jacob Subotnick, the lighting by Samantha Davis and Patrick Mahaney, and Sidney Fortner's costumes.

Leah, the Forsaken
Through March 12
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East Fourth Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: