INVENTIVE MEMORY PLAY COULD USE JUST A BIT MORE MAGIC
Inspired by the work of Johanna Cooper—a broadcaster who was commonly drawn to Jewish tales—Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Abbie Phillips, Heidi Stillman, and Andy White based The Last Act of Lilka Kadison on a story recounted for the NPR series “One People, Many Stories.” It took five writers to craft an entirely conventional story, but they avoided some serious pitfalls by turning a memory play of lost love into a supernatural toy box.
Crotchety 87-year-old Lilith Fischer, chair-ridden from a recent fall, is haunted by the memory of her young love Ben Ari Adler. Past merges with present in her cluttered present-day Los Angeles home as she recollects her 17-year-old self (Lilka Kadison) and Ben as they play out their brief affair which was cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.
The spectral Ben literally begins pulling apart Lilith’s home, taking old records from the shelves and uncovering old toy theater boxes—some of which when turned over become cardboard tombstones. It is in this 1939 cemetery that the young couple falls in love while collaborating on a Yiddish toy theater production: an adaptation of the story of Solomon and Sheba. Yet each object in Lilith’s home is not just a dense receptacle of memory for her—the ailing woman’s caregiver Menelik Kahn also finds echoes of himself in the clutter; like Lilith, this Pakistani man is a sympathetic subject of displacement and loss.
Melissa Ficociello’s set and prop design fills the stage with playful placards, pop-ups, and other homespun theatrical magic. Thus, Ben and Lilka’s affair is cleverly turned into a piece of Toy Theater itself. The stunning set becomes a theatrical box with props and platforms that pop from the walls, and feathers and letters that float from the ceiling. (Ben’s peripatetic Toy Theater, which pops right out of a wall in Lilith’s living room, is designed by Susan Simpson.)
By play’s end, one would need a heart of lead to be untouched by Lilith’s painful memory, which is inexplicably unleashed after so many years. Like Ben and Lilka, or like Solomon and Sheba, our own relationships are filtered through a lens of self-consciously theatrical storytelling. Yet for all the playful design and touches of theatrical enchantment, Falcon Theatre’s production could use more urgency and magic. Even with three Magic Consultants (Christopher Hart, Brett Schneider and David Regal), a powerful ensemble dynamic is needed to elevate the prosaic tale into one which is truly captivating. Since Dan Bonnell’s direction favors the tricks more than the nuance of his cast, we are left with a slight, bittersweet historical melodrama when pure emotional devastation could have been in the offering.
As the young Lilka, captivating Brittany Uomoleale presents a shy, well-mannered Jewish girl very well, but there is never an undertow of rebel in her, so it’s difficult to buy that this seemingly naïve girl from a restrictive home would a) bed a man even in an extreme circumstance and b) grow up to become the curmudgeonly and mean-spirited Lilith. There isn’t even an occasional outburst of the feminist firecracker she will become.
Nicholas Cutro certainly looks and acts the part of the affable and persuasive Ben, but the character should always be dripping with charm. Instead, Cutro is what I call “actor-schmactory,” an instance when a (usually New York) actor relies on the fact that he has appeal and training enough to make a character come to life. Cutro seems to be so aware of his appealing demeanor that he robs the character of innocence and charm: It’s the difference between a diverting performance sufficient for a child’s birthday party and the magnetic acting necessary for a three-dimensional stage character.
Mindy Sterling (Groundlings improviser extraordinaire and “Frau Farbissina” in the Austin Powers trilogy) offers surprisingly solid work as the feisty-cum-forlorn Lillith, although even at 60 she is a bit short-in-the-tooth for an 87-year-old. Normally a comedic actress, Sterling displays lovely vulnerability but her catharsis doesn’t have depth enough to be shattering.
Usman Ally is one of Chicago’s finest actors, having appeared at ATC (Disgraced), Lyric Opera (Oklahoma!), Steppenwolf (Three Sisters), and the Goodman (The Jungle Book), among others. The part of in-home nurse Menelik was actually written for Ally, who appeared in Lilka’s first production at Lookingglass in Chicago, and he brings wit, depth, and a rich history to the character not always given him by the script.
Many patrons will be satisfied with Lilka as a worthy melodrama. But the script lacks the edgy complexity of a timeless play. Therefore, we need a director to be an alchemist who can turn a quality base metal script and cast into invigorating theatrical gold.
photos by Michael Lamont
The Last Act of Lilka Kadison
presented by Abbie Phillips & Jan Kallish
in association with Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago
4252 Riverside Dr. in Burbank
scheduled to end on April 19, 2014
EXTENDED to April 27, 2014
for tickets, call 818-955-8101 or visit www.falcontheatre.com