Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
In Every Generation
Maybe "it would have been enough" to use the family dinner table to examine three generations and their differing, often clashing views of tradition, family tragedies, and personal hopes and plans. Maybe "it would have been enough" to tackle the complexity of today's trends of spreading and disturbing antisemitism and its connection to both the past and the possible implications for the future. Maybe "it would have been enough" to use a play to teach the audience about Jewish traditions and their connection to those stories of the ancient past; but maybe it is too much when the teachings also approach being too tedious and didactic. Maybe "it would have been enough" to delve into any one or two issues, such as the effect on a family of a recent, painful divorce; the search for one's identity and past as a Chinese, closeted gay in a Jewish, Italian family; the role of memories of past horrors and yet the need to pass those experiences to the next generation; or the effect of a patriarch's disease like ALS on a family. Maybe including all these and much more becomes overload.
Maybe "it would have been enough" for the director (Michael Barakiva) to milk the shock, unease, and/or emotion of family scenes once or twice with extended silence or with a flood of tears that seem unending; but maybe it is too much to do so over and again. And maybe it is just too much to sit through yet another play where the dinner table becomes the setting for a bevy of secrets, embarrassments, long-held resentments, and betrayals predictably to erupt into screaming attacks, painful hurts, and yet more tears. (Think Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, David Eldridge's Festen, or Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular to name just a few plays where the revelations and resulting reactions become almost formulaic from one play to the next.)
Most of the above occurs during the first act of Ali Viterbi's In Every Generation as five members representing three generations of the Levi family sit in April 2019 around their Seder table while eating (literally) course after course of beautifully prepared and presented food, interspersing between bites the readings, prayers and songs of the Jewish Seder.
Valeria Levi (Cindy Goldfield) has meticulously prepared the traditional foods (including a vegan version for her daughter, Yael), but the 57-year-old UCLA professor really no longer wants anything to do with anything Jewish after a grueling divorce from a cheating Rabbi husband. Yet, Valeria wants this Seder to be as perfect as possible in honor of her dying father, the 87-year-old Davide Levy (Michael Champlin) whose advanced ALS has left him helpless but whose deep-rooted spirit and spark still find ways to be expressed. Valeria and her mother Paola (Luisa Sermol) find ample opportunities to vault verbal arrows in the other's direction while Paola also gleefully reveals to her grown granddaughters stories about her Italian past when she was hidden as a Jewish girl in a convent during World War II–stories that may or may not be exactly as they happened but ones often highly entertaining to everyone but Paola.
Yael Levi-Katz (Olivia Nicole Hoffman) is home from her pre-med studies at Yale, is now vegan, and is excited about delving into the effects of inherited trauma (like being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors as she and her sister are). Unlike her sister Dev, Yael thinks Jews in the U.S. are not under threat and are in fact part of the problem as "whites" for much of the country's present issues. Dev (Sarah Lo) is figuring out who she is as a Chinese American adopted into a Jewish Italian family, and yet she is probably–along with her beloved grandfather–the most "Jewish" of her family in belief and practice.
Overall, each of these cast members is excellent in portraying the persona handed them in the script. The issues of the play and the production are not in the acting but more in the script and sometimes in the direction.
Particularly outstanding is Luisa Sermol as the matriarch, Paola. Her fabulously entertaining mix of Italian and English, her expressive eyes that brim with both wit and love (and also at times, with barbed attack), and her overall animated nature are a delight to behold.
When in the second act the Levi family's stories first backtrack to April 1954 and then jump ahead to April 2050 (with these first three parts of the story all set in Los Angeles and around the Seder table), the results are far more satisfying than the more predictable, too-cluttered, too-slow-paced first act. Particularly charming is Part II set in 1954 when the young couple, Paola and Davide, are celebrating their first Seder after arriving on the shores of the United States. The humor, the genuineness of emotions expressed, and the love and hope exhibited by a couple who have each survived hell in order now to have a chance for freedom's gifts make this short scene almost worth the price of the ticket.
Likewise, there is much to contemplate in the both disturbing and moving scene of 2050 when the two sisters (Dev and Yael) unite for a Seder with their now aged-and-ailing mother (Valeria). The current seeds of antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ+ we are experiencing in the U.S. have germinated into a future we can only hope does not manifest itself, with the possible journey from here to there projected in future-dated events/laws (by projection designer Rasean Davonté Johnson) that make what is currently happening in states like Florida and North Carolina look tame in comparison.
The final part of this quartet of scenes is beautifully and poetically conceived as the ancestors of the Levis stand in the Sinai Desert in 1416 BCE as the forty years of wandering the wilderness after the Israelites' exodus from Egypt come to an end, with the next morning being the day to enter "the land of milk and honey." The combination of humor, magic, symbols, and generational passing of the torch is powerful; yet in many ways, this scene seems more appropriate as a stand-alone educational lesson in a synagogue's or even church's religious school. While it draws together some of the earlier themes of the play's previous parts, its purposes are a mixture of a story's summary and of yet more education about the Jewish Seder and its history. The latter part is a bit heavy handed, even for an audience member like me who is Jewish.
While In Every Generation was the winner of the 2019 National Jewish Playwriting Contest, the multitude of current, past, and projected future issues of religion and race, of family and identity, of developing one's younger self and dealing with aging, and of personal and societal prejudices become too entangled with each other as well as with a strong thread of education about Jewish traditions and practices. To that mixture comes a too-familiar script of a Pandora's box being opened of heretofore hidden family secrets and of pent-up resentments and rivalries that spill forth all over the beautiful, bountiful Seder table. In the end, the result is only a partially satisfactory evening.
In Every Generation runs through February 12, 2023 for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit https://www.theatreworks.org call 877-662-8978 Tuesday - Sunday, noon - 6 p.m.; or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: All patrons are required to wear a mask during the entire production.