at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre
These days we are barraged with tales of identity theft, so it's sobering to be returned to a time when begging, borrowing, or stealing another's identity could be life-saving. In 1940s Germany, the spelling of one's name could arouse enough suspicion to cause families to flee, children to be evacuated, and forged passports to be worth more than gold. In Wendy Graf's new play, prickly journalist Helen (Mimi Kennedy in a brisk, down-to-earth performance) is pulled into the vortex of an identity search when she tries to reach into the core of her mother, Eva (a stunningly fine Salome Jens), who is receding from the present as Alzheimer's takes its toll. Eva's past begins to surface, leading Helen to the long-hidden truth that her mother was born a Jew in Germany, and even though Eva married a non-Jew (Mitchell Ryan) in America, by Jewish law, Helen, a devout Catholic, would also be Jewish.
The past and the present are intertwined in the play, with flashbacks to the family home in Leipzig, where love and comfort still exist in Eva's brain, in the personas of Vati (K.C. Marsh), Mutti (Shauna Bloom), and brother Erich (Ryan Eggold), all long dead. In a conceit that initially seems silly but that evolves into something affecting and funny, Helen calls on her truly spiritual advisor, Jesus (a delightful Paul Witten, handling a difficult role well), who also had a Jewish mother, and who stands by the confused Helen as she learns the Kaddish and gently chides her for her anger at her parents' concealment of the past and her negative response to being Jewish.
Graf's writing is easy and colloquial, and her subject matter deeply profound without preaching; it's about adaptation and faith in its fullest interpretation. Director Deborah La Vine keeps the play in excellent dramatic, often tense motion, while overlapping the past and present, the living, the dead, and the immortal. Performances are generally good, though the fake accents of the Leipzig family are an unnecessary distraction. Despite the rich subject matter, Act 2 breaks no new ground; the acts might easily be consolidated. Overall, however, this is a stimulating and important play not yet fully realized.
Presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre and the Group at Strasberg at the Lee Strasberg Institute's Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 20-Dec. 10. (323) 650-7777.
Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner