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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

Salome Jens
Salome Jens
(Photo: Ed Krieger)

Altzheimer’s disease might seem like a blessing to a victim of the Holocaust but in Wendy Graf’s new play Leipzig at the Lee Strasberg Institute, it remains an enemy to be contended with like Jacob’s Biblical struggle with the Angel. This is not the only Biblical analogy that comes to mind in this production, as Jesus is, in this case, a prominent supporting character.

As the play begins, the characters of Vati (Father) and Mutti (Mother) in 1930s dress appear in the memory of their daughter, now an elderly woman in the increasingly clouded stages of Altzheimer’s. Her husband George insists to their only child Helen that he can take care of her. Helen, a journalist, doesn’t see it that way and fights for her own independent career and the necessity to hold a job which keeps her from becoming a full-time caregiver.

When the woman asks them to pray for her and denies the prayers that George, a devout Catholic, and daughter Helen recite, in favor of a prayer in Hebrew, Helen learns that her mother is Jewish— a survivor of the Kindertransport program that brought children out of Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Her real name is Eva and she and George made a pact never to speak of the past. Out of fear and sorrow, Eva has kept the pact until now.

Helen’s shock at the revelation is developed in long discussions with her spiritual confidante, Jesus, which the playwright astutely constructs as dialogs about the differences in the Jewish and Christian faiths, leavening Jesus’s character with a naturalism and humor that offers welcome relief to the tragedies of this story, as well as a humanistic overview. It also takes the play to a level beyond the chronological story of the discovery of the fates of Eva’s family and the haunting survivor’s guilt.

Eva is played unforgettably by Salome Jens, whose sensitivity and beauty augment the torment of an abandoned guilt-ridden child. Mimi Kennedy is a strong brusque Helen, embodying a woman who never received the love which remained invested in her mother’s own family. Mitchell Ryan is a sturdy presence as the devoted stubborn George who cannot accept his wife’s growing dementia.

Eva’s family is vividly portrayed by K. C. Marsh as the affluent Jewish physican who believes that because his family fought in World War I they are safe from Nazi persecution; Shauna Bloom as the beautiful and charming Mutti who believes life is good until it isn’t; Ryan Eggold in a stunning and personable performance as Eva’s young brother Eric. Last but far from least, we have Jesus played by Paul Witten who perfectly realizes the playwright’s intention to bypass the irritating quotations of scripture to reach the heart of warmth and humanity that is the best part of this concept.

Director Deborah LaVine melds these remarkably diverse characters into a believable and riveting ensemble. J. Kent Inasy’s subtle lighting design augments Daniel L. Wheeler’s evocative set whose background of dark wood and fragments of forgotten rituals embodies both the small apartment to which the Leipzig Jewish family were reduced and the jumble of Eva’s mind.

Playwright: Wendy Graf
Director: Deborah LaVine
Cast: .K. C. Marsh (Vati), Shauna Bloom (Mutti), Mitchell Ryan (George), Mimi Kennedy (Helen), Salome Jens (Eva), Ryan Eggold (Erich), Paul Witten (Jesus).
Set Design: Daniel L. Wheeler
Lighting Design: J. Kent Inasy
Costume Design: Cynthia Herteg
Sound Design: Chris Briles
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
October 20 to December 10, 2006.
Co-production of the West Coast Jewish Theatre and The Group at Lee Strasberg Institute’s Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood, (323) 650-7777.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on October 27, 2006.
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