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An American Family

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre at Theatre Four, 424 W. 55 St., NYC, Nov. 12-Jan. 21.

This year's show for the venerable Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre traces one immigrant Jewish clan from the turn of the century to the 1930s. "An Amerikaner Mishpokhe" ("An American Family") depicts the struggles of an indomitable immigrant woman, her three daughters, and the men in their lives. Writer Miriam Kressyn has adapted the play from Sylvia Regan's "Morning Star," translating the 1937 play from English into Yiddish.

Initially, this is a sweet, inoffensive tale, which turns into heavy tragedy with the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The story moves forward like a series of snapshots whose short scenes never bore, but neither do they allow for in-depth characterization. Thus, "American Family" probes no more deeply than soap opera.

It is all played out against the backdrop of history—World War I, the roaring '20s, the Great Depression—and might be seen as a survey course: The Immigrant in America, circa 1910-1935.

Under the direction of Eleanor Reissa, with musical direction by Zalmen Mlotek (the co-artistic directors of Folksbiene), the show is crisply handled, well paced, and offers a range of timely songs. Performers tend to overact, but that very style reflects the tradition of old Yiddish theatre.

On the whole, Reissa has assembled a fine cast, headed by the excellent Sheila Rubell, with capable performances from Shira Flam, Yelena Shmulenson, and Deana Barone (the daughters) and Spencer Chandler and Steve Sterner (the husbands). Murray Nesbitt adds considerable charm as an elderly suitor, and Raquel Polite, who plays the black maid, delivers her lines in impeccable Yiddish. Above all, there is the indestructible Mina Bern, who must be 80-plus, but never misses a beat. A pro is a pro.

Like other ethnic theatres around town, Folksbiene offers simultaneous translation, which makes it accessible to all. Whatever the flaws of this production, the company is a living museum which helps preserve a particular heritage.

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