Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
One spark of hope among them is a recent addition. Abe is an energetic 30-something, sure that a new coffee place among vacant storefronts means the district is on the verge of a renaissance. He recently discovered a submerged passion for his Jewish identity, bringing his new-found zest for his faith to the failing Etz Chaim congregation just in time to be elected its president and preside over their long-postponed decision whether or not to sell the building and lay their shul to rest.
This fictional shul is not unlike scores of real houses of worship in inner cities around the country, as demographic and economic changes leave behind buildings held sacred by a small group too old and poor to maintain them. The set, well rendered by scenic designer Michael Hoover, gives hints of the sanctuary's former dignity obscured by decades of decay. Here the remaining members will vote on whether or not to sell their beloved shul. They cannot afford its upkeep, and in fact for some years have not had a rabbi to lead services, nor a Torah or other sacred objects, having sold them to pay expenses. But there are many memories here, and no other visible sign of the community in which they grew up and raised their own children. Among those gathered, each is a particular type: Miriam the caretaker, Nate the worry wart, Friedman the optimist and entertainer, and Ezra the somewhat demented sage.
A stranger shows up, Paul Golden, all the way from Hilton Head, who has never been present, yet has a strong personal connection to Etz Chaim. Golden's dapper suit stands in marked contrast to the rumpled, threadbare clothing worn by the other men, and Miriam's somewhat dated, though still most proper, attire. His purpose at the meeting creates flashpoints with the others, allowing for dialogue that mixes philosophy, articles of faith, litanies of disappointing lives, and improbable hopes. Those hopes are brought even more into focus when a realtor, invited by Abe to talk to the group, shows up with a prospective buyer. What do these people in the waning years of life hope for? Well into act two, their thoughts continue to teeter-totter back and forth.
Robert Dorfman, an actor with a long resume, including his magnificent turn at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in the one-man play Via Dolorosa, makes his directing debut with Shul. Dorfman creates an atmosphere of warmth and affection among the core characters, and allows for balance in their arguments for and against selling the old synagogue, drawing the audience in as interested parties in the outcome.
A quintet of actors do fine work as the elder Etz Chaim congregants. As Miriam, Nancy Marvy captures the essence of a woman left alone by her life, who fills the void by assuming every unclaimed responsibility. Raye Birk's Nate cannot conceal a kind heart and deep affection for his friends beneath a scowling, cynical exterior. Paul Schoenack projects the life force within Friedman, working overtime to bring lightness into the encroaching dark. As enigmatic Ezra, Charles Numrich conveys a kind of lunacy that is the result of stewing over his deep thoughts until they simmer over. As Golden, the outsider trying to assert his role among the others, Nathaniel Fuller creates a brusque first impression, defenses well-guarded, who in spite of himself begins to understand what he has missed out on for all of his life.
Avi Aharoni is extremely likeable as Abe, overflowing with cheerful energy borne of his reawakened Judaism, but his character is underwritten. We get no sense of his past, nor the kind of Jewish identity he imagines cultivating amid this diminishing group. It is hard to tell if Abe is a clear-eyed leader or a dewy-eyed dreamer, and the difference is crucial to the outcome of the play.
Dexieng Yang is burdened with the role of Heidi, written as such a shrill and unpleasant character, without an ounce of kindness, that it is hard to imagine her having a very successful career as a realtor. As the would-be buyer John, Jôher Coleman fulfills his role as a plot device, surprising the membership of Etz Chaim first with his very appearance and with his unusual offer.
Shul deals with real concerns and does a good job depicting the frailty of a community of elders whose primary support system is one another. It gives specific color and character to a dilemma being replayed in the urban core of large cities around the country. Wolf does all of these things well. However, in stretches, the play feels overly talky, the characters repeating their cases for selling or keeping the building a bit too often. He throws curves into the plot, which sometimes work nicely to ratchet up the discussion, such as the surprises upon the entrance of the realtor Heidi and of the interested buyer John.
These folks have lived well into their golden years and seen a lot, but are still caught off guard by the way the world is changing. An impromptu entertainment relieves the mounting tension and demonstrates the strength and affection of the bonds among these people. At other times Wolf's plot twists feel forced, such as the manner in which the missing congregant, Ezra, winds up joining the meeting, as well as the resolution, when it finally comes, based on withheld information that could have been offered in the play's first twenty minutes, and that fails to really address the core issues facing this community.
In spite of weaknesses in the unspooling of the narrative, Wolf has touched upon a nerve that will be felt deeply by many, including those facing the loss of community institutions that have nurtured them through their lives, and those either experiencing or observing the grasping by those growing old onto lifelines, be it a building that offers a gathering place, or friendships cultivated for over half a century that continue to give life meaning. One moving scene in particular takes place when an important sacred object, long believed to be long lost, resurfaces and is reinstalled, conveying the very essence of the word hope. Thanks to a talented group of actors, strong work by its design team, and Robert Dorfman's sensitive direction, this Shul is worth attending.
Shul, through May 19, 2019, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00, $12.00 Student Rush for any performance with valid ID. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwright: Sheldon Wolf; Director: Robert Dorfman.; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume: Design: Rebecca J. Bernstein; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Rick Polenek; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Teresa Nelson: Technical Director; Stage Manager: Katie Sonddrol.
Cast: Avi Aharoni (Abe), Raye Birk (Nate), Jôher Coleman (John), Nathaniel Fuller (Paul Golden), Nancy Marvy (Miriam), Charles Numrich (Ezra), Paul Schoenack (Friedman), Dexieng Yang (Heidi Schwartz).