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Letter from the Director: 'Wandering' Jewish Theatre excited about 12th season

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 1, 2008 - Twelve seasons implies a degree of permanence and stability in the world of theater companies. So, the fact that the New Jewish Theatre is about to launch its 12th season is a bit of a milestone. And yet we embark on this season with a mixed array of emotions: excitement and anxiety topping the list.

For our first 11 years, we were in the familiar (if oft uncomfortable) environs of our own space, the Wolfson Studio Theatre of the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur. As a part of the JCC, we had the good fortune of having a dedicated space not shared with others. But now with the Creve Coeur facility in the midst of significant renovations, the New Jewish Theatre must, of necessity become “the Wandering Jewish Theatre” – at least until a new state-of-the-art theater has been completed.

The entire season will be held at Clayton High School, 2 Mark Twain Circle off of Maryland Avenue in Clayton (with generous, well-lit parking). Four of the five plays will be presented in the school’s “Little Theatre” and one on the mainstage of the school’s auditorium. While the Little Theatre at CHS is comparable in audience capacity to the current Studio Theatre at the JCC, it is a much more open and spacious area with comfortable theater-style seating. The size and configuration of the space also allows for more flexible staging of productions. But with the limited audience capacity (approximately 100), the productions will maintain the intimacy that patrons enjoyed so much in the former space. 

In choosing a season to go into this temporary space, many issues had to be taken into account, including cast size, size of set, lighting capabilities, etc., as our old space has different capabilities from this one. For instance, the theater at Clayton High School allows for more complex lighting designs, with higher ceilings for hanging more lighting instruments. However, having to build sets off site and load them into the theater demands a certain simplicity of scenic design elements.

Because the space is more flexible, staging a play becomes at once both exciting and challenging. The entire configuration of the audience can be different for every production. And so the directors and designers for each production need to assess the best layout for the piece they are working on. Some pieces lend themselves to a more conventional proscenium type presentation, while others benefit significantly from the greater intimacy created in a nearly round configuration.

Consequently, the season we have chosen is as varied as the space will allow for. The opening production on Sept. 10, “Chaim’s Love Song,” is a sweet, lovely and intimate story about retired Brooklyn mailman Chaim Shotsky, an American Tevye who tells his stories to Iowa school teacher, Kelly Burke. Chaim's story, a love song for life, is one of tragedy, struggle, humor, humanity and ultimately triumph.

“The Last Seder” is a sprawling, gripping human drama that makes us laugh, and holds us firmly as Lily and Marvin Price, and their four daughters (each with a respective partner) gather at the family home for the last Seder before Alzheimer-afflicted Marvin is sent to a nursing home.

In January, St. Louisan Willy Holtzman’s drama, “Sabina” tells the story of the stormy relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and their young patient, Sabina Speilrein who became intimately involved with both men and later became an analyst in her own right. The story has all the elements of a psychological thriller, wreathed in an aura of real history.

Slated for the school’s mainstage auditorium, the March production, although ostensibly a Cuban story, has some very Jewish connections. “Sonia Flew” is an exploration through the eyes of a Jewish-Latino family in Minnesota, of how world events shape our families and how families shape our lives. Operation Pedro Pan, a Cuban echo of the Kindertransport, deals with the same issues of guilt and forgiveness.

The season finale is Jason Robert Brown’s infectious, upbeat, intimate musical, “The Last Five Years.” It tells the story of the five year relationship between Jamie and Cathy from beginning to end – and from end to beginning. It is a real modern falling-in-and-out-of-love musical.

Each production supports the mission of the company to examine universal issues reflected through the lens of the Jewish experience, because theater is the optimal medium for holding a mirror up to ourselves.

2008-09 New Jewish Theatre Schedule

“Chaim's Love Song” Sept. 10-28

“The Last Seder” Dec. 3-21

“Sabina” Jan. 28-Feb. 15

“Sonia Flew” March 11-29

“The Last Five Years” May 27-June 21

Subscriptions and single tickets are available at www.brownpaperticket.com or call the box office at 314-442-3283.

Kathleen Sitzer is artistic director of New Jewish Theatre. 

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