Friday, October 11, 2013

Jericho Starring Jill Eikenberry at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Jill Eikenberry, Carol Todd, Andrew Rein, Kevin Isola, Eleanor Handley, and Noel Justin Allain in JERICHO by Jack Canfora at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
“Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down…."

Currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, Jack Canfora’s Jericho is set in Jericho, Long Island, circa 2005, not in the ancient Canaanite city of the same name.  But in the Long Island community, battles (albeit familial and emotional rather than nationalistic and military) still are being fought.  Joshua – or “Josh” (Noel Joseph Allain) as he is known in the off-Broadway production – still plays a decisive role.  And, perhaps most telling, the walls still come tumbling down.

In fact, the walls (of the World Trade Center) came tumbling down on 9/11/2001 - four years before the play began, thereby setting the stage for all that was to follow.  This is intended to be not only figuratively but literally the case: the stage is cluttered with debris, a mass of upended tables and chairs and other assorted non-descript objects, the flotsam and jetsam of the 9/11 attack, all of which the actors access in creating the sets for their subsequent scenes.  This, in fact, suggests two things: first, that the characters current lives are really a consequence of the 9/11 tragedy; and second, that out of the chaos that the 9/11 attacks engendered, new and better worlds yet might be created.

Alec (Kevin Isola) died in the 9/11 tragedy and his traumatized widow, Beth (Eleanor Handley) never fully recovered: despite medication and psychotherapeutic intervention, she remains delusional, refusing to accept the fact that Alec is truly gone and unable to establish an intimate relationship with another man.

That other man, at least potentially, is Ethan (Andrew Rein) a patient and decent chap whose own brother, Josh, narrowly escaped death himself at the World Trade Center on the same day.  That narrow escape apparently left Josh suffering both from “survivor’s guilt” and from an accentuated sense of his own “Jewishness” and it wreaked havoc on his marriage to Jessica (Carol Todd) who is understandably reluctant to join him in emigrating from Long Island to Israel in fulfillment of the sudden re-awakening of his sense of Jewish identity.

Rachel (Jill Eikenberry), Josh’s and Ethan’s mother, continues to live in Jericho, Long Island in the house where she raised her sons, but she is about ready to sell the house and move on herself – not to Israel but to Florida where she could join her sister, Helen,  in comfortable retirement in their golden years.  But Rachel hasn’t left yet and, before she does, she hosts her traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her family: her two sons, Josh and Ethan; her daughter-in-law, Jessica; and Ethan’s latest flame, Beth.

One need not be solipsistic to recognize that, at least to some degree, we all live in worlds of our own making and build walls around ourselves to preserve those worlds as we perceive them.  For many, it is difficult enough even to think outside the box, let alone live outside the box, but should the worlds to which we’d become accustomed begin to crumble, as they so often do, we may be forced to face up to the unpleasant reality that our world might no longer be what we once imagined it to be or that it might be time for a change or that another’s world may not necessarily coincide with our own.

And that is what this play really is about, not the the literal collapse of the World Trade Center as much as the figurative crumbling of the worlds we construct around ourselves and our need to construct other worlds over time to replace them.  Thus, Rachel’s perfectly satisfactory original world was her Long Island home but ultimately she came to explore an alternate reality in Florida’s retirement community.  Ethan’s free-wheeling Jewish-American world was up-ended when he began dating Beth – a shiksa of partial Palestinian descent.  And while Josh’s youthful insular worlds in Long Island and Manhattan, may have satisfied his needs prior to 9/11, they proved inadequate for him in the days after 9/11; once terrorists destroyed the Wall Trade Center, he found himself forced to tear down the world of his youth, replacing it with an alternative orthodox Jewish religious community structure.

Beth’s world collapsed when Alec died and she struggled mightily, albeit unsuccessfully, to replace it.  Jessica was content with her assimilated Jewish-American world and didn’t really want to replace it with Josh’s new vision of a brave new world in Israel.  (In a way, Jessica’s problem was the mirror image of Beth’s: while Beth could not accept that the world that included her dead husband was truly gone, Jessica could not accept the fact that Josh’s own world had so changed that, although still very much alive, he was truly lost to her.)

This is a thoughtful and well-written play in which it seems that there is almost always more to a character’s persona than first meets the eye and all of the actors do a wonderful job of pacing their revelations to retain our interest throughout the entire work.. As we come to understand Josh better, we learn that the “survivor’s guilt” he feels at having survived the 9/11 tragedy has a deeper basis than we might at first have suspected.  And we discover another dimension to Beth’s deep despondency over Alec’s death as well.

Kevin Isola is charming as Alec (and as Beth’s shrink, Dr. Kim).  Andrew Rein, as Ethan, exhibits a wide range of emotions in his various relationships with his mother, his brother and his girlfriend, Beth.  Not surprisingly, Jill Eikenberry is delightful as Rachel, a Jewish mother making a valiant effort to understand her children and keep her family together while attempting to build a life for herself. 

The role of Josh – son, brother, husband, newly-minted Zionist, and tortured survivor – is a particularly difficult one to play but Noel Joseph Allain does it with considerable skill.  Eleanor Handley’s role as the mentally disturbed Beth role is far from an easy one either but she too pulls it off with great aplomb.  But it was Carol Todd as Josh’s put-upon wife, Jessica, who I thought did the very best job of all, enabling the audience to actually experience the feelings of one whose world is falling apart in the most unexpected of ways. 

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