The Jewish mother has somewhat become a stereotype in entertainment. The portrayal of the overbearing matriarch, who steadfastly drills in to her offspring the crucial importance of retaining the Jewish tradition, has been widely represented in literature, film and theatre. She is a disciplinarian like no other who sets the impeccable standard for the household, irrelevant of the income. She is proud of the family name and marks her territory within the community while strategically eavesdropping in to the neighbours’ lives if only to keep up with the growing competition. Though kind and loving, she is firm with her children, particularly her daughters, full-knowing of their need to be groomed for the role in years to come. The richness of this character together with the complexity of what it means to be a Jewish woman in America is explored in James Sherman’s contemporary comedy drama, From Door to Door, through the depiction of the lives of three women of three generations.
Making its Australian premier under the directorial reins of Moira Blumenthal, the play opens with Mary (Joanna Weinberg) who has just been sitting ‘shiva’ after the death of her mother, Bessie (Dina Panozzo). Her daughter, Deborah (Maxine Appel-Cohen), pulls out a blank canvas to encourage her mother to go back to her forgotten passion for painting, immediately setting off a flashback to Mary as a bright and exuberant teenager. The play from there follows a linear structure portraying Mary as daughter, then becoming mother to Deborah, to Deborah then becoming a mother herself. The play’s title refers to a phrase from a Hebrew prayer book, “l'dor v'dor”, meaning “from generation to generation”, highly apt given the subject material. Sherman closely examines female identity within the American Jewish context, considering how traditions, belief systems and even mannerisms become passed on from one generation to another. The reference also plays prevalence to the constant moving of the family, starting with Bessie’s immigration from Russia to Chicago. As if ingrained in the family culture, they continue this habit of packing and moving, an ironic theme considering how much of the play considers the integral links of the characters that transcend space and time.
Appropriately, the stage is littered with boxes of all sizes wrapped in plastic and string so as to allude to not only the literal movements of the family but to also suggest their history and to act as a metaphor for their stored stories and memories, some of which are better left forgotten. Three black door frames encircle the stage but are curiously not as frequently used as exits and entrances as one would think. It is an otherwise functional design by Krystal Giddings.
The main challenge for Weinberg, Panozzo and Appel-Cohen in this ensemble production is the ability to convey the ageing of their characters while balancing their performance with their counterparts, so to convey convincing mother-daughter-grandmother dynamics. Weinberg who plays Mary conveyed the most radical turns as she transformed from a woman in her seventies to a teenager, to a woman in her thirties, then fifties. Furthermore, she is required to make these transitions while on stage as her character is present throughout the entirety of the play. The directorial decision to have Weinberg make costume changes in the dim of the fade-out was an interesting one. While she overall did a convincing performance as she conveyed increasing difficulty bending and stretching her arms as her character grew older, it was evident that the actress was also trying to get the job done as smoothly as possible so as to avoid holding up the flow of the play. This was a shame as this part of her performance felt half-hearted and the potential to make more of these moments could have added more resonance to the character.
Weinberg otherwise was clearly the anchor of this production. Sustaining an American nasal drawl (strangely similar to that of a Brooklyn accent as opposed to native Chicago), Weinberg managed to pull it off localising the setting and adding a sense of place. At times, her voice was almost more powerful than her actual movement displaying more sense of age and emotion. In a way, it is easiest to empathise with Mary as she is the one whose journey we most significantly witness.
The dynamics of the women seem at its strongest when the tone is comic in nature. Both Panozzo and Weinberg in particular have a great knack for comic timing and beautifully work the punch lines from Sherman’s witty repartee. Even Appel-Cohen, who mostly seemed to be lacking energy in her performance, gained laughs and this was clearly more to do with the interesting situations of the characters. Where Sherman’s script flawed were the more emotionally loaded moments. A visit to go see Fiddler On the Roof unexpectedly turns into an outpouring of heartache and family secrets, which immediately jars with the previous scenes containing realistic dialogue. Suddenly, it is as if we are watching a Jewish Joy Luck Club heavily reliant on dramatic monologue to tell the story.
While this is without a doubt, an entertaining and insightful glimpse into American Jewish culture with particular emphasis on the evolving role of women, it doesn’t offer anything new. Sherman’s script however will appeal to those who not only understand what it is like to be under the thumb of a Jewish mother but anyone who understands what it is like to have a mother at all.
Moira Blumenthal, JoMax Productions and the Seymour Centre present
From Door to Door
by James Sherman
Venue: Seymour Theatre Centre, Sydney
Dates: 27 February - 24 March 2007
Times: Tue 6.30pm; Wed, Thur, Sat 8pm Thurs Matinee 1.30pm, Sun Matinee 4pm
Tickets: $32.60, conc $27.60, groups $25.60; Special group rates for organisations
Bookings: 02 9351 7940 or www.ticketmaster.com.au