With 24 performances behind us and 11 more to go, Theater J's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs is roughly 2/3 complete, but each time we perform, it still feels fresh and exciting, and there always seems to be one more layer that can be peeled away and analyzed and one more lesson learned. I know the last of the 11 shows ahead will come too soon, but I also know that long after the final curtain call, this show will still be with me.
I did not know anything about Brighton Beach Memoirs until I started to prepare to audition for the role of Laurie. After I read the actual script, I fell in love with the story and the characters. But if I am honest, I have to admit that going into auditions, I thought there was basically no chance that I would be cast. After all, not only is Brighton Beach Memoirs a play about a Jewish family in Brighton Beach, New York, in the fall of 1937, but this particular production would be staged by Theater J, "the nation's largest and most prominent Jewish theater company" -- and, I am not Jewish.
Fortunately for me, the creative team responsible for putting together this beautiful production trusted the cast to work to tell this important story in a genuine and authentic way regardless of what each cast member's actual ethnicity or religious affiliation might be. And what I learned in preparing to tell this story is that the struggles and fears the play's characters face in 1937 are in many ways very similar to the struggles and fears families face in 2017, whether they identify as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist etc.
Brighton Beach Memoirs is the story of the Jerome family's struggle to survive in the pre-World War II age of the Great Depression. When the audience meets the Jerome family, they are 7 people stuffed into a small house in Brighton Beach: parents Jack and Kate Jerome, sons Eugene and Stanley, and an aunt, Blanche, and her two daughters, Nora and Laurie, who have been living with the Jeromes since Blanche's husband died six years ago. The adults in Brighton Beach Memoirs struggle with financial insecurity, unemployment, a looming war, sadness over news of atrocities occurring overseas and prejudices both overseas and in their own backyard. When I look at the headlines in the newspapers in 2017, I can't help but think that the grown-ups in this world are still struggling with unemployment, fear of war, and prejudice. And for that reason Brighton Beach Memoirs speaks to all of us. At its core, I see the play being about the importance of family and the resilience a family can find when they refuse to let bad things and adversity tear them apart.
That is not to say the importance of the Jerome family being Jewish should be or can be overlooked. I sometimes get lost in my own questions prompted by this discussion in the play:
KATE . (wiping table) Ida Kazinsky's family got out of Poland last month . The stories she tells about what's going on there, you don't even want to hear.
STAN. How many relatives do we have in Europe?
KATE. Enough . Uncles, cousins. I have a great-aunt. Your father has nephews.
JACK. I have a cousin, Sholem, in Poland. His whole family.
BLANCHE . Dave had relatives in Warsaw. That's where his mother was born.
STAN. What if they got to America? Where would they live?
JACK . Who?
STAN . Your nephews. Mom's cousins and uncles. Would we take them in? (JACK looks at KATE.)
JACK. What God gives us to deal with, we deal with.
STAN. Where would we put them?
The kids in the show have varying degrees of appreciation for what keeps their parents awake at night, and are for the most part busy dreaming about becoming baseball players or Broadway stars or longing for their independence. I don't think the character I play, Laurie, fully appreciates what Kate is referring to when she talks about things going on in Poland and people not even wanting to hear about those things. But she does have questions about Cossacks and people who don't like Jewish people, and she definitely is starting to become fearful; I don't think it will be long before she outgrows her naivety.
While Laurie may not understand what Kate is referencing in that moment, Sarah Kathryn does. And for me, Sarah Kathryn, the dialogue is important because while I, like many of us, may feel like Kate and may not want to hear, we not only have to hear, but we have to remember and we have to tell the stories so we remain vigilant in making sure humanity learns from history and fights to keep it from ever being repeated. I am not unlike the kids in the play, I spend a lot of time dreaming about my future (including being a Broadway star), and probably do not spend nearly enough time worrying about world events, but sometimes when I hear the lines above, I can't help but wonder if we are doing enough today to make sure history does not repeat itself. Of course, the best theatre makes its audience think and ask questions.
I love this show. It is laugh out loud funny, but it still makes you think. If you want to see a show that will make you laugh, a show that will touch your heart and make you think about hard questions but still provide you hope for the future after the lights come up and you leave the theatre . . . . well, you have 11 more chances to do just that with Theater J's Brighton Beach Memoirs.