October 9, 2005

Review: Strong casts, direction carry dark double bill

By Dean Bevan
Photo by Nick Krug

A well-filled house was on hand Friday night for the opening of “The Holocaust Kid” and “The Zoo Story,” performed on the main stage of the Lawrence Arts Center by English Alternative Theatre.

The first of these, written by KU graduate student Tim Macy and directed by Jeremy Auman, is set in the home of Elizabeth, an elderly Jewish widow on Christmas Eve. Her visiting daughter Gertrude plans to move her into a nursing home for Christian singles, and has brought along a Christmas tree, a stuffed Santa, and other items (including her gift, a print of “The Last Supper”) to accustom her mother to the idea.

It doesn’t work, of course, as Gertrude’s 16-year-old daughter Meg points out acerbically and often. To add to the awkwardness, the misguided Christianization and nonstop bickering takes place before Sadie, the girlfriend of Meg’s older brother Jack — whom they all expect to join them soon. Add to this mix the dementia which Elizabeth exhibits (she confuses Jack with her late husband Herman, a Holocaust survivor) and her repeated disappearances into the basement, and the result is a tense and uncomfortable evening for the group.

Jack has gone off to college where he plans to box, much against his mother’s wishes. He appears in frequent flashbacks, indicated by lighting changes and a bell signaling the beginning and end of a boxing round. Meanwhile, the family’s polarization on the heritage issue is shown not only in Gertrude’s virtual denial of her Jewishness, but also in Jack’s embrace of it: He wants to be like Grandpa Herman, also a boxer, and has even had Herman’s concentration-camp number tattooed on his arm. The secret of Jack’s whereabouts, which occupies all four women for the entire play, is revealed in the final scene.

It is a strong cast, with Larissa Ejzak brilliantly playing the tortured and torturing Gertrude. Tara Gallagher shines as the feisty Meg, and Lavinia Roberts credibly conveys the grandmother’s altered mental state. Julie Bayliff is effective as Sadie, trying to put a good face on a nightmarish Christmas eve as the menorah burns brightly upstage. Dylan Walker as Jack shows us the pathos of growing up with the hovering and controlling Gertrude.

Macy’s script clearly delineates each character; their different concerns, even when not in opposition, maintain a tension that lasts throughout the play. And Lee Saylor’s set and lighting are elegantly simple, reinforcing the play’s main themes.

The evening’s second play, Edward Albee’s 1960 classic “The Zoo Story,” benefits from Paul Lim’s direction. The character of Jerry, a transient, can be played as mostly menace and abrasion, but in this production, he engages our sympathy. The part is played with energy, grace and intensity by Patrick Crough, who never misses a beat, even while delivering the tour de force “story of the dog,” more than 2,500 words and lasting 20 minutes.

Jeremy Auman, as Peter, the repressed businessman whom Jerry tries to bring to life, neatly reflects his character’s discomfort and fascination with Jerry. At first merely stuffy and proper, he becomes both more frozen and more anguished as Jerry becomes more agitated and lyrical. The play is now 45 years old, but it is still powerful and puzzling, and still has Albee’s hallmark ability to make an audience squirm.

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