Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Six, The Viking and the Gazelle and All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Liam Beck-O'Sullivan, Amanda Cate Fuller,
Elizabeth Efteland, and Natty Woods

Photo by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
At one point in Buffy Sedlachek's play Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky, Isaac Pearl, a Jewish grade-school boy living in Billings, Montana, explains to his best friend Katie what "mitzvah" means. While, technically, the Hebrew word means commandment—a deed prescribed by God—it has come to refer generally to a charitable act or a deed worthy of praise. Using the latter meaning, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's remount of this inspiring play, which they commissioned in 2004, is a major mitzvah.

Based on a true story, Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky is set in 1993. Isaac's family, having relocated to Billings where his father is a physician, is enthused to observe Hanukkah while most of the city is preparing for Christmas. Isaac places a menorah in his bedroom window, and during the night someone throws a brick through the window, shattering the glass and destroying his menorah. It is not the first act of anti-Semitism to have recently struck Billings. A Jewish cemetery had been vandalized, and the rabbi's tires slashed. But nothing had been done, and little had even been said.

Shocked by a senseless act that could have gravely injured her child, Isaac's mother Tammy calls the police. When they fail to take her concern seriously, she goes to the Billings Gazette, and they run her story. This draws both positive attention—support for the Pearl family and the Jewish community—and negative, sparking further acts of vandalism against Jews and those who defend the Jews. Katie's mother Lori joins forces with Tammy, speaking at church and PTA groups. They garner the support of the chief of police, who calls for zero tolerance of hate crimes policy. The tide finally turns when the Gazette publishes an editorial lambasting the rash of hate crimes with a full-page picture of a Hanukkah menorah, urging readers to post their paper menorah's in their own windows as a stand against hate.

The actual campaign waged in Billings in 1993 was called "Not in This Town." While Sedlachek's play focuses on acts of anti-Semitism, the reality in Billings at that time was that hate crimes were being committed against African Americans, Native Americans, LGBT people, and other groups, along with Jews. Simplifying the narrative in the play, which runs only one hour, helps to make it accessible to young audiences, and draws focus on a specific part of the greater problem. Still, as stated in the play, Billings was at that time a city of 80,000 with fewer than 500 Jews. Given the broad array of targets for hate, both then and now, a fuller portrayal of the issues, and the limited scope of the solution, could be grist for another, more fully fleshed out play—that would be another mitzvah.

That does not diminish the achievement of those citizens who roused themselves out of apathy, or even worse, their fear of engagement, to stand up for unjustly demonized neighbors. As Lori tells Tammy, these problems have been around for fifty years, and though they do not reflect how the majority of folks in Billings feel, they continue because the majority of people remain silent. As Lori also states, "it's very hard work getting good people to do good things."

The understandable boundaries set by the playwright do not diminish either the importance or the quality of her play. Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky is extremely well written and its characters are completely authentic, with dialogue that rings true throughout. It begins with Tammy telling Isaac a bedtime story about Judah Maccabee, who led the Jewish uprising that Hanukkah celebrates. Once the brick goes through Isaac's window, the play progresses with a dynamic sense of Tammy and Lori's struggle to build the community's resistance even as incidents of hate crimes continue to occur. Sedlachek adds a touch of fantasy, as Judah Maccabee appears to Isaac in his dreams, giving him sage advice and inspiration. However, as Isaac points out to him: "if you are in my head, the answers you give me must also be in my head."

Sedlachek also takes a short cut, having Isaac's father attending an out of town conference while all of this occurs. However, she has created six different characters representing perspectives of the townspeople, and all are played with aplomb by Lee H. Adams—in particular, his take on the progressive-minded teacher and personable, principled police chief. Adams also plays Judah Maccabee, endowing the ancient hero with a sheen of wisdom.

Liam Beck-O'Sullivan is amazing as young Isaac. He takes on the role, with its bouts of boyish exuberance, indignation, fear and introspection, and creates a fully realized character. As Katy, Natty Woods also gives a deeply impressive performance, reaching out as a true friend to Isaac and struggling to understand how these bad things can happen in her town. Amanda Kate Fuller is quite moving as Tammy, concerned foremost for her son, but conveying the strength to take on the larger issues that, if left alone, will continue to hound them. Elizabeth Efteland makes Lori's friendship, support and conviction seem completely authentic.

For being just one hour long, the play has quite a few scene changes. Director Shelli Place keeps them well paced, with near-seamless transitions. She also draws a welcome balance between the heavy-handed business of hate crime and lighter moments depicting Isaac and Katie as just two kids hanging out. I was, however, a bit perplexed by the range of accents among the different characters, some of which sounded like they hailed from different regions of the American south, rather than from the northern Rockies.

Kirby Moore's set is stunning. A background of the Montana mountain skyline establishes this as a region that is both beautiful and harsh. Isaac's bedroom has all-American boy touches, and the teal, peach and sand toned flooring, and grey walls, establish a tasteful home, well in the mainstream, and therefor more shockingly made the target of hate. Paul Epton's lighting depicts bright day retiring into the starry nights of the big sky country, and sound designer Anita Kelling provides atmospheric bridging music between scenes. Barb Portinga's costumes suit the characters perfectly, with the two moms sporting an assortment of comfy sweaters.

This production is the third engagement of Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky since it's 2004 premiere—and its first return since 2012. A lot has changed in our national life since then, making Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky more urgent viewing than ever. Its messages include: that hate targeted against any group, be it for religion, race, national origin, gender, sexual preference, or any other identifying label is an abomination; and if people are willing to step forward, out of their veil of silence, and in a unified manner, even simple actions can make a difference—it has happened before. May this play contribute to making it happen again.

Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky runs through December 22, 2019, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $20.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or visit

Playwright: Buffy Sedlachek; Director: Shelli Place; Scenic Design: Kirby Moore; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Katie Sondrol.

Cast: Lee H. Adams (Judah Maccabee/police officer/Hal - shop owner/Mr. Brown/Pastor Dan/Mr. Jamison/Police Chief Gil Moran/Brian Pearl), Liam Beck-O'Sullivan (Isaac Pearl), Elizabeth Efteland (Lori Martin), Amanda Cate Fuller (Tammy Pearl), Natty Woods (Katie Martin).