THEATRE REVIEW: Tara Franklin is exquisite in Chester Theatre’s ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’
Bar Mitzvah Boy
By Mark Leiren-Young
Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon
“… why so many of our people need therapy.”
More earnest and sincere lapsed Jews exist in America in the 21st century than ever before. I am one of them. We believe in a higher being; we endorse many of our traditions; we even agree not to talk about our beliefs much so as not to distress others, some we know and some we don’t, who are deeply committed religious observers. When we decide it’s time to take up the old ways of our childhood once again, it usually brings us close to the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, our inspiration through belief. In Mark Leiren-Young’s play “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” which is currently on stage in Chester, Massachusetts, just such a quiet conversion happens, not just for a lapsed Jewish lawyer who never had his bar mitzvah as a kid, but for a female rabbi to whom he turns for guidance, training and a conscience.
Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon is a woman with several discreet, yet heavy, problems of her own. Her 11-and-a-half-year-old daughter is dying of cancer but holds on to a devout belief in God and her desire to be confirmed a woman at her bat mitzvah before dying. Her aristocratic Russian husband is unable to maintain his part of the marriage. Tara Franklin, in what may be one of her finest performances in years, plays Rabbi Michael. Her frank, flat, judgmental statements are extraordinary. She brings the outside possibilities into the mundane, ordinary, day-to-day existence of her character and, in doing so, she keeps us from overreacting until all of the rabbi’s truths are revealed and we can no longer contain our sense of grief. If there is a school looking for a perfect primer on acting, they need only film Franklin in this role. She runs the gamut from excellent to exquisite.
As always, it is impossible to separate the work of a superb actress from the input, handling and direction of a talent like Guy Ben-Aharon. Under his guidance, neither Franklin nor her costar, Will LeBow, have a single moment where we might question the reality on stage in front of us. This director understands the power of the written word delivered sensibly, out loud. His actors never take the acting to the forefront of their work but always manage to keep honesty out in front of everything. In their mouths and minds, these words are the tools of a tradition that speaks from hearts and guts rather than from intelligent analysis of underlying meaning. They work the reality exactly as Ben-Aharon finds it in the script.
Joey “Yosef” Brant is a high-powered lawyer with a peculiar mission: to be bar mitzvahed before his grandson has his own calling to the Torah. Having left his religion behind him at age 12, Joey is now obsessed with bringing himself into a state that will allow him to participate in his grandchild’s life. He has chosen this synagogue and this rabbi to be his launching pad and captain, against the rabbi’s wishes. Joey is played with lovely flashes of humanity and substance by Will LeBow. This character’s gruffness is illusory for, in his heart, he is a softy whose deep emotional state flares out of control now and then. LeBow is wonderful. When his character has an opportunity to support the rabbi he insists must support his wishes, the turnabout is handled with a magnanimity that is portrayed perfectly.
The set by David Towlun is a miracle all its own. A wall of slightly yellow, flat, rough-hewn stones morphs, at just the right moment, into stacks of books, changing the environment from a cold reality to a warm one. Charles Schoonmaker’s costumes are modern and real and right for the characters. Lara Dubin’s lighting is bright and emotional at times and her “eternal light” is everything you would expect in a modern-day shul.
Mark Leiren-Young’s play is one of the best examples of didactic realism, moving through the weeks and months of this relationship, charting its growth and the individual alterations in the two characters. It is the sort of piece that cannot fail to bring its audience, Jewish or not, into the world of worship and its significance in times of emotional struggle. Dependence, codependence and independence are all dealt with equally here and the production, like the play, pulls no punches in bringing personal issues into the religious fray.
I think this is a very good play in a very, very good production with every impulse of the author honored in the direction and the playing. If there was time to do it, I would gladly see it again.
Bar Mitzvah Boy is a Chester Theatre Company production at the Town Hall Theatre, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, Massachusetts, through Sunday, July 1. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to chestertheatre.org or call the box office at (413) 354-7771.