Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play takes place in the Sherman Oaks, California, condo home of Lil and Lenny Levinson, Rosie's parents, who are well into their seventies. The occasion is Lil's birthday. Lil has an irrepressible personality, boundless energy, is prone to break out in song, and is always dressed to the nines. She has enjoyed her birthday, but is disappointed not to have heard from Rosie, who lives in New York City. The truth is, she and Rosie have a strained relationship, and their time together usually ends in arguments and hurt feelings. Rosie surprises her parents with a birthday visit, but the joyful reunion soon reverts into the old patterns of criticism and blame. But when Rosie admits to her mother that she lost her job, with new producers opting to bring in fresh writing talent, Lil declares this to be blatant ageism, giving Rosie moral support that is appreciated, even if somewhat off target. Lil then confides to Rosie her fears about Lenny's worsening heart condition and memory lapses, and suggests that Rosie should visit more often, for his sake. Rosie agrees, bringing them to an accord.
A few weeks later, everything has changed. It is Lil, not Lenny, who is gone, her life cut short by a sudden heart attack. Rosie, her daughter Sara, and Lenny are decompressing after the funeral and the first of seven Jewish ritual days of sitting shiva. Rosie and Sara slip into their own patterned arguments. Lenny is in shock, unable to believe that his adored life-partner is gone, although his sense of humor remains intact, using jokes to deflect his feelings. Days later, Rosie decides to stay and help her dad, who hasn't left the house or even changed out of his pajamas since Lil's funeral. What Rosie thinks will be a two week stay turns into months, as Lenny is diagnosed with dementia.
When his care begins to overwhelm Rosie, she decides to hire a personal care attendant. Grace is ideal for the job in every waysmart, funny, kind and, unlike Rosie, a great cookbut for Lenny, she has a flaw that negates all of her virtues: she is a transgender woman. Though he is a progressive, liberal Jew in every other respect, Lenny is hopelessly homophobic. Rosie faces Lenny's failing faculties, Sara's unrelenting antagonism, and Grace's emotional needs while wondering what lies in store for her. This all leads to an emotionally satisfying ending that celebrates the strength of family identity, as the title of the play declares.
The narrative is in places too pat to be believed. The personal care attendant, Grace, is too good to be true, as if having her character be transgender meant we better be assured that everything else about her is perfect. Though the role of Grace is written for her to be African American, nothing in the play suggests that race is much of a factor in her life. On the other hand, Lenny's complete change of heart toward Grace is both predictable and extremely unlikely. Sure, circumstances may have led him to give her a grudging chance and gradually come to accept her, but here, the rate of his change of heart is astounding. Perhaps Kout tried to squeeze too many issues her story, rather than trusting the strength of the core narrative. On the other hand, families don't typically come with neat, linear plots. They have numerous subplots, digressions, and supporting characters. If it seems that the outcomes for the Levinsons is too neat and tidy, we have only to considerwhat will happen to each of them tomorrow? Their present may seem unbelievably resolved, their future remains a sea of questions.
We Are the Levinsons is directed by Minnesota Jewish Theatre veteran Kurt Schweickhardt, who moves the story at a rapid clip through ten scenes without intermission. He does not pause for the punch lines of the numerous laugh lines, maintaining a natural flow of conversation and action. For the most part, his cast succeeds in bringing their characters authentically to life. Melinda Kordich, as Rosie, gives a wonderful performance, as Rosie bears the weight at the center of the story. She is convincing in her intent to be generous, supportive and loving, even as the craziness of family dynamics grates at her like nails on a chalkboard. She projects real anguish when she wilts under the strain of caring for her father, and frustration with the impossibility of satisfying Sara. Robert Dorfman is adorable as Lenny, determined to see the world through a sense of humor, even when he is overtaken by anger at his deteriorating condition. He is the consummate romantic in his unquenched love for Lil.
Nancy Marvy cuts a classy figure as Lil, conveying her sass, confidence, and positive energy, even after her death. She may be opinionated and prone to argue, but always with love in her heart. Adelin Phelps wrings out Sara's bitterness and feelings of rejection. She responds to life with pouts and knee-jerk offense, lacking the maturity to be responsible for her choices as she carelessly collects boyfriends, tattoos, and bad habits. As Grace, Alyssa DiVirgilio conveys the perfect care attendant who can do it alland actually enjoys doing it alllike a modern day Mary Poppins. Yet her very perfection diminishes her character. She tells us she has been through rough patches, but we see little evidence of scars or lasting pain. Her goodness is a veneer that may serve to protect her, but also keeps us out.
Michael Hoover has designed the living-dining room of the Levinsons' condo, illustrating the span of interests and tastes in their life: traditional, upholstered furniture, with framed modern art on the walls, and a picture window with a view of the mountains surrounding Sherman Oaks. Liz Josheff Busa has designed costumes that perfectly convey each character's world view, and must have had a field day coming up with the parade of high-fashion outfits for Lil. Paul Epton's lighting design and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design further enhance the production. Little detailslike Lenny having a flip-cell phone, rather than a smart phoneadd to the sense of watching real people living real lives.
The writing and characters very much place the story in the context of a Jewish family, but We Are the Levinsons is not a Jewish play. Without qualification, it is a funny play, and genuinely funny plays are hard to find. It is also a thoughtful play, and a heartfelt play that delves into some difficult but fairly universal passages of life. We all must give up the insolence of youth and take on the mantle of adulthood. We all must see those who nurtured and cared for us exit this world, as we too will someday leave life behind. Along the way are opportunities to love and to pursue our dreams. These, we should cherish with tenderness and with laughter. We Are the Levinsons delivers both.
We Are the Levinsons continues through May 14, 2017, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $34.00 - $20.00; Student Rush tickets - $12.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Written by Wendy Kout; Director: Kurt Schweickhardt; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume and Properties Design: Liz Josheff Busa; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Dramaturg: Hayley Finn; Stage manager: Jorge Rodriguez
Cast: Alyssa DiVirgilio (Grace), Robert Dorfman (Lenny), Melinda Kordich (Rosie), Nancy Marvy (Lil), Adelin Phelps (Sara).