by Lynn on April 29, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kathy Kacer and Jake Epstein
Directed by Rachel Slaven
Set and Costumes by Scott Penner
Lighting by Siobhán Sleath
Original Music by Mark Camilleri
Starring: Jake Epstein
Lisa Horner
Sheila McCarthy
Avery Saltzman
Amelia Sargisson

An unfortunately simplistic play dealing with a complex subject.

The Story. During WWII in Europe Chava and Joseph meet, fall in love and marry. Pretty soon they are living in terrible conditions in one assumes was the Warsaw Ghetto. There is mention of ‘the ghetto.’ Soon after that they are herded into a railway car going to Auschwitz. At the camp Joseph is motioned to move to the side where those destined to live stand. Chava goes in the line going to the gas chamber. Miraculously she is saved at the last minute, but she looses track of Joseph. Joseph survives; moves to Canada and tries to find Chava. He waits for five years.

When the camp is liberated Chava moves to Russia. She doesn’t stop loving Joseph or trying to find him. One day she does find him. She writes to him telling him she’s coming to see him.

This turns Joseph’s world upside down. He has been married for 25 years to Evelyn. They have a son name Sam who is planning a surprise anniversary party for them. Joseph tries to keep the secret of Chava to himself until he can’t put it off. She is arriving on the day of the anniversary party.

Many secrets are revealed. Sam has his own—he’s in a job he hates; has nightmares according to his girlfriend, and can’t seem to commit.

The Production. Scott Penner has designed a two levelled set. The lower front section is an area that is a kind of no-man’s land. It’s where Sam has his scenes in his office, trying to arrange the surprise party. It’s also the place where Chava reads a letter she wrote to Joseph. It neatly gives the background of their relationship, courtship, marriage, separation and Chava’s struggles to find him. It’s put in the third person asking if he remembers a young woman that he met and married etc.

The upper level is the living room of the house that Joseph shares with Evelyn. Penner has given the place a sense of size. The living room seems deep. There is reference to a dining room. Given this information and the suggestion of the size of the house, it’s odd that in the scene where Joseph and Evelyn eat lunch, it’s in the living room on tiny fold-out tv tables. I thought that an odd choice of staging by director Rachel Slaven. Her direction of the rest of the production is respectable.

When Chava reads the letter she wrote to Joseph, Joseph stands in his space in the upper level, his living room, also reading the letter, stunned at the news that she’s alive and coming to see him. When Chava finishes, she exits. Joseph is clearly upset. He puts the letter in his pocket. He doesn’t tell Evelyn about it at first. What could he say?

The production should be emotionally charged considering the subject matter, but it misses. Certainly the cast does its best to create emotional fireworks. The two strongest performances are Avery Saltzman as Joseph and Lisa Horner as Chava. Saltzman is a man whose whole world has turned upside down. He is like a deer in headlights and there is no place he can go for comfort. He is a man who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but stands up for his own happiness too. As Chava, Lisa Horner is an intensely serious woman who has had any humour forced out of her by the horrors she has endured. Horner makes her strong, resilient, tenacious and loving. These are two characters grasping for the other to have just a bit more joy in their lives. These are two lovely performances.

As Evelyn, Sheila McCarthy is chatty, doing all the talking as Joseph remains silent, burbling away about the nosy neighbour, fretting about their son, wondering what to make for lunch. Evelyn obviously helped Joseph choose life after his horrible ordeal in Europe. She has been by his side for 25 years. When she learns about Chava, it throws her for a loop. This is nicely conveyed by McCarthy.

As Sam, Jake Epstein is unsettled in a job he hates, confused by what is happening to his parents, and unable to commit to his girlfriend. He is haunted by his own secrets and we find out what they are rather late in the play. Finally as Suzanna, Amelia Sargisson is a mature young woman just trying to make sense of her unsettled, rather immature boyfriend. Sargisson gives a lovely performance.

Comment. The Holocaust is a soul-crushing, deeply complex, haunting subject that has as many angles as there are people who have experienced it. Even the children of those who have experienced it suffer. Therefore Choose Life does not even come close to dealing with the depth or complexity of the subject. Why? Because this play by Cathy Kacer and her son Jake Epstein is so superficial. I found that odd for a play purporting to be about adults. Then it came to me. This play isn’t for adults; it’s for young people. That makes sense since Kathy Kacer is a celebrated writer for young readers in which many of her books deal with true stories of the Holocaust. But that does not necessarily make a successful play.

So often I found both Evelyn and Sam to say things that are so simplistic and almost naïve. Evelyn doesn’t seem to have any depth of awareness about what Joseph has been through. Has he told her? Has he not? Has she asked? Does she actually believe that he should forget Chava because he hasn’t seen her in 30 years? Are we to take this woman seriously?

Sam too seems petulant regarding his father. He has nightmares according to his girlfriend. We find out why in Act II. Does that mean Sam has always had nightmares since he was eight? The play doesn’t tell us.

Too often information about characters, a situations etc. comes from no where, supported by nothing. The ending is very sweet and the audience will be satisfied, but it comes from no where if we are to believe the dialogue that came before.

Therefore Choose Life needs another re-think and re-write or two and a very ruthless editor.

Presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company

Run: April 18-May 10, 2015
Cast: 5: 2 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.