Regional Reviews: Boston
We All Fall Down
Also see Nancy's review of boom
When the play opens, a large dining table is the focal point center stage, but the hustle and bustle of people and preparations creates a frantic scene. Saul (Stephen Schnetzer) has cut himself shaving and sports a bloody shirt collar, upsetting the already manic Linda (Eleanor Reissa) who is running around and delegating tasks to everyone. Younger daughter Ariel (Dana Stern) practices yoga in the foreground, seemingly oblivious to the circus atmosphere. Linda's graduate assistant Ester (Elle Borders) putters in the kitchen and excitedly reacts to a phone call. Older daughter Sammi (Liba Vaynberg), visiting from California, responds to the insistent doorbell and admits Bev (Sarah Newhouse), a chatterbox former neighbor who appreciates the invitation to celebrate what she calls the Jewish Easter. Lastly, Saul's older sister Nan (Phyllis Kay) arrives with a cache of family photo albums, as requested by Linda, and is dismayed to learn that the dinner she came for will actually be a Seder.
In a fairly brief span of time, Kaplan has introduced the characters and some of their quirks, as well as the nature of the interpersonal relationships. Each of them is either in a state of flux or noticing that something is going on with someone else, and presses the point to flush it out. Speaking of which, several scenes take place in the bathroom where one goes to lick wounds (Linda), escape scrutiny (Sammi), or avoid the Seder (Nan). The conversations in the loo are always between two people and serve to change the tone as they tend to resolve an issue that occurred in the midst of the craziness in the dining room. There is also a lengthy tête-á-tête between the sisters in Ariel's bedroom, giving them the privacy and space they need to reinforce their sibling bond away from the parental bickering.
You don't have to be Jewish to recognize what's going on within the Stein family, although those who share the faith might be able to experience it on a cellular level. There are moments when the writing veers toward stereotypical Jewish tropes, but rather than feeling mean-spirited, it just feels familiar. However, the challenges they are facing, especially the (not going to spoil it) reason for Saul's unexpected retirement, the geographical and emotional distance between the parents and their "girls" (women!), and the internal struggle to reclaim dormant, if not forgotten, beliefs, could certainly apply to anyone. What Kaplan's play lacks in depth, it substitutes in universality.
Director Melia Bensussen masterfully balances the dramatic and the comedic aspects of We All Fall Down, drawing performances from the ensemble that are both nuanced and broad, as called for by the circumstances. Perhaps mirroring the importance of the matriarch in the Jewish family, much of the weight falls on Reissa's shoulders and she conveys the many layers of her character. Linda is a dynamo tending to many irons in the fire, sometimes at the expense of her husband or daughters. Adding insult to injury, her recent successful book is entitled "Mothering Difficult Children" and the message is not lost on Sammi and Ariel. Still, Reissa lets us know in no uncertain terms that this is a woman who fiercely loves her girls, or else why would she try so hard to mold them and keep them around? The chemistry she shares with Vaynberg and Stern crackles with Jewish mother energy and they respond with appropriate annoyance or appreciation, depending on the situation.
Vaynberg and Stern create a genuine sibling relationship, their characters alternately helping or hurting each other, but they are believable, especially when they join forces to take on their parents. Schnetzer plays Saul as the proud father who dotes on his daughters, but is also confused by their life choices. His character's story arc requires him to change over the course of the play, and his outbursts illustrate what he's going through. He and Reissa complement each other well as the couple navigates their unpredictable future. Kay hides some warmth under Nan's sardonic exterior and, despite being a secondary character, makes her imprint on the family. As the outsiders, Borders and Newhouse both deserve attention for their skill in playing the fish out of water and evoking our sympathy.
Scenic designer Judy Gailen effectively divides the space to afford small areas for individual scenes or moments. A staircase stage right is used for many dramatic entrances and exits, while the upstage kitchen is the site of a few small skirmishes, and the aforementioned bathroom sits stage left. Russell H. Champa's lighting design carves out each of the areas as they come into play, and sound designer David Remedios enhances the interstitial spaces between scenes with evocative klezmer-like music. Karen Perry's costume designs add definition to the characters and contribute some bits of comic relief.
We All Fall Down is packed with double meanings and serious themes, but like the children's song that the title comes from ("Ring Around the Rosie"), it is playful and links the members of the family into a circle, even if only for this night. We don't know if they'll ever have another Seder, but they have honored the tradition, paid homage to the past, and reaffirmed their family ties. As the Passover song says, "Dayenu" (it would have been enough).
We All Fall Down, has been extended through February 15, 2020, by Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA. For tickets and information, all the box office at 617-266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Written by Lila Rose Kaplan, Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic Design, Judy Gailen; Costume Design, Karen Perry; Lighting Design, Russell H. Champa; Sound Design, David Remedios; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Stage Manager, Jamie Carty
Cast (in order of appearance): Stephen Schnetzer, Eleanor Reissa, Elle Borders, Sarah Newhouse, Liba Vaynberg, Dana Stern, Phyllis Kay