Regional Reviews: New Jersey
12 Miles West's Triumphant
also see Bob's review of Spain
12 Miles West in Montclair is presenting the New Jersey premiere of The Loman Family Picnic by Donald Margulies. Although this play has been performed widely around the country, it has taken ten years from the time that this "revised" version was seen in a widely praised production at the Manhattan Theatre Club for it to cross the Hudson to New Jersey. If it has the box office success that it merits, perhaps we can look forward to a new Margulies play for each of the next several seasons in Montclair.
The play takes place circa 1965 in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn in a middle income housing development (read Trump Village). We are in the apartment of a most unhappy Jewish family. Center stage as the play opens is 38 year old Doris. A homemaker for her husband and two sons, she sits in her housecoat clearly overwhelmed with disappointment and self pity. Speaking directly to the audience and protesting too much that, "I love the way my life has turned out," she is unable to cope with her household tasks. As she talks with her hallucination of long dead Aunt Marsha, she seems in danger of losing her ability to function.
Her husband Herbie, a 40 year old lighting fixtures store salesman, wearied by long work hours, the stress of always struggling to make ends meet and a lifelong sense of his own inadequacy, finds that he is unable to relate to or communicate his feelings to his family.
Sons Stewie, age 13, and Mitchell, age 11, are precocious and intelligent, but too young to really understand or effectively cope with the pain inflicted on them by their self pitying, clumsy parents. Although such behavior is the norm in children of their age, the sons complete a quartet of self-centered players.
The plot centers on Stewie's imminent bar mitzvah and the conflict which arises between Herbie and his son when the latter realizes that his father intends to use the money that Stewie has received as presents to defray the costs of the catering hall party that has been made to celebrate the occasion.
There are no villains here. Pain is being passed on from generation to generation among family members who, at the core of their being, long to give and receive love and happiness from one another, but haven't much hope of being able to figure out how to do so. This is terribly sad, but it is not depressing. One reason is that Margulies deals with universal issues which allow audiences to reflect upon, and attain a heightened understanding of, themselves and those closest to them.
Another reason for the transporting nature of the play is the manner in which author Margulies brilliantly incorporates his vision of Arthur Miller's masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, into his play, for The Loman Family Picnic is a heartfelt tribute to Miller's play.
Donald Margulies has clearly modeled younger brother Mitchell on his 11 year old self. Margulies has said that at the age of 11, he became fascinated by the similarities between his family and that of Willie Loman. And it is fascinating to see how two very different families have such deep parallels.
Mitchell determines that in lieu of a standard book report for school on Salesman, he will write a musical-comedy version called Willy! which will include a Loman family picnic. While to some extent Margulies (in words appropriate to his 11 year surrogate Mitchell) and composer David Shire send up the generic nature of some musical comedies, they are on target in capturing the style of musicals of that era, and their affection for the genre shines through.
As a bruising confrontation threatening to pull the family apart ends, Mitchell is found alone on stage escaping into the world of Willy!, as he leads off an extended series of songs from his musical with some lyrics altered to include the names of his family. This also serves as a deeply moving tribute to the importance of musical comedy in putting joy into the lives of theatre lovers.
The conclusion to the play is also outstanding as Margulies, in a series of alternate sequences, separates the theatrical and unlikely from stark, simple reality.
Jeremy Silberberg (on floor), Sharon Garry,
Terrence P. Burnett (standing) and Justin Robertazzi
The set is adequate, retaining the basic elements needed to recreate the apartment. Moreover, the entire space works beautifully as it puts viewers in the position of sitting in the family living room eavesdropping. Lighting alone delineates the brief catering hall scene and the mini-Willy! sequence.
Director Jemma Alix Levy has done an outstanding job in maintaining the integration of the rich disparate elements which comprise this work. There are no false steps here. Relative to its 1993 New York production, the balance of the play seems to have shifted away from Doris and more toward Herbie. However, the shift seems to have provided the play a more balanced focus.
Terrence P. Burnett (Herbie) is outstanding. When all the hurt, frustration and self pity burst forth during the play's major dramatic confrontation, he fully and convincingly conveys Herbie's anguish without any histrionics. Burnett makes it painfully clear that Herbie is unable to communicate anything other than his most wounded and wounding emotions.
Sharon Garry's Doris is well acted. She seems to have made the valid choice of playing down Doris's mental disturbance.
Justin Robertazzi handles the role of Mitchell with ease, and his singing is outstanding. He looks a little too sharp and professional to be Herbie and Doris' kid, but this is a small problem that can be easily mended.
On the other hand, neophyte Jeremy Silberberg appears to have born to play Stewie at exactly this point in time. His line readings are natural and effective. Silberberg beautifully holds his own in his confrontation scene with Herbie.
Stephanie Carr, as the long deceased, forever 23 year old Aunt Marsha, is lively and credible.
Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for his Dinner With Friends, Donald Margulies is one of the finest of the current crop of American playwrights. His The Loman Family Picnic is seemingly his most personal play. In my opinion, it is also his best. Richly theatrical and filled with brilliantly imaginative touches, it is also painfully realistic as it explores the tragedy of unfulfilled lives and the all too prevalent inability of individuals to overcome self pity and communicate effectively with those closest to them. Margulies accomplishes all this in a play that is humorous and pays tribute to the important, transformative role that art can play in our lives.
12 Miles West presents this complex, multi-faceted play in an accomplished production which allows us to savor the richness of Margulies' genius. I expect that word of mouth will quickly sell-out the run of the extraordinary The Loman Family Picnic at this tiny theatre, so I urge that you get your tickets immediately. This is an opportunity you should not miss.
The Loman Family Picnic will continue through October 12 at the 12 Mile West Theatre Company (on the lower level of the Clairidge Cinema Building)/ 488 Bloomfield Avenue/ Montclair, NJ 07042/ 973-7467181; online www.12MilesWest.org
The Loman Family Picnic by Donald Margulies; directed by Jemma Alix Levy; Cast (in order of appearance): Sharon Garry (Doris); Justin Robertazzi (Mitchell); Jeremy Silberberg (Stewie); Terrence P. Burnett (Herbie); Stephanie Carr (Marsha).