review: a splintered soul

A Splintered Soul

by Alan Lester Brooks
Directed by Daisy Walker
Featuring John Michalski, Michael Samuel Kaplan, Anya Migdal
Theater Three, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor
October 21 – November 13, 2011
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 23, 2011

Playwright Alan Lester Brooks imagines the conditions for decisions and their effects on the men and women who make them, doing what they must to survive under the Nazi regime and in the camps.  His characters steal, sell what they have including their bodies, fashion some of the components of what become the camp crematorium ovens, control their fellow prisoners during the war years, and attempt to live with those actions several years later in America.  The themes are haunting, the character possibilities multiple, and in the end the stories superficially treated. Many possibilities and no single one fully realized in this new play dealing with profound and heartfelt issues.

Rabbi Simon Kroeller (John Michalski) has settled in San Francisco after the war. Sponsored by the local Jewish population a range of refugees begin new lives in 1947 with their physical and psychological wounds suffered in the 10 or so preceding years under the Nazis. Sol (Michael Samuel Kaplan) is funny, angry, and full of his own rage at his kapo past.  Mordechi (David Lavine) entered the camps as a homosexual and now seeks to marry a young Jewish American. Gerta (Anya Migdal) lost a child in the camps in utero, survived through providing sexual favors, and now is working as a domestic for a local couple.  Kroeller himself lost his wife Sarah (Lisa Bostnar, who visits him in his dreams) and child we don’t meet, and while in the Resistance was part of a bombing that resulted in civilian casualties. Sex, family, past pains, and just a few years remove. Enter two young Polish refugees Elisa (Ella Dershowitz) and Harold (Sid Solomon), who seek the Rabbi’s advice, protection, and possible action against an individual they report is still holding them captive locally. And at this point the plot completely unravels. Our Rabbi is asked for wisdom and advice and he responds blankly and without reference to law or morals, and engages in some ill-thought-through actions himself. The play’s content doesn’t help us to feel his uni-dimensional compulsion to act. Other characters make limited decisions or simply vanish from the stage. The play’s general set-up has promise, yet the execution includes too many notes, too many plot lines not quite fully realized. We are, in fact, told far too many facts by characters sipping tea rather than experiences exposition in real time.

The set by Kevin Judge is spare and evocative (though second set piece apartment in a box at stage right seems unnecessarily complicated). The tree trunks of the Rabbi’s memory of Polish forests in which he lived with the Resistance and during which some key events transpired, run up, as posts, along the corners of his 1947 apartment (during which most of the play’s action takes place) and rise outside the open window.  (This design evoked for me the original 1973 designs of A Little Night Music with birch wood forests emerging, through which the ensemble performed “A Weekend in the Country”. Gorgeous.)  Lighting by Patricia M. Nichols sparks theatrical moments, highlighting the trees of memory or change fragments of faces and exchanges with wit.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 24, 2011)