L M Feldman’s new and vital play “A People” explores the connections, conflicts and contradictions that reach all the way back to Abraham and uneasily meld into a Jewish identity – or, at least a Jewish identity in America. With “A People,” Feldman, whose artistic disciplines include being a circus artist, gives herself a tightrope to walk. In 90 minutes, how do you bring everything into resolution, from the slow decline of everyday Yiddish to the rigors of theology and a constant wrestling with the existence of God?
The answer is, quickly. Thoughts and storylines come and go and then return, often in a flash, in what Feldman calls “a mosaic play,” an accurate description. Still, it doesn’t begin to tell us how beautiful and honest many of these mosaics are, even the ones that could be developed into meatier (kosher, of course) images. But you can’t fault Feldman for failing to do the play you might want to see. She’s done enough, by writing a challenging group of scenes that cleverly address pieces of Jewish history and culture. Put them all together and you get a messy, passionate and candid version of something resembling an identity.
You might call it a circle-of-life play, only with more details. Feldman begins with the bubbes – the grandmas (and some grandpas) who’ve gone through a 20th-century of simple lives, then hell, and then if they were lucky enough to survive, redemption. Along the way we meet rabbis old and new, prayers that never change and hopes that are constant. The younger generations challenge, the older ones look back with wisdom – it’s a heartfelt survey of a people and given that I’m one of them, I was sometimes unsure whether to laugh or cry at what I was witnessing. But always, I identified.
“A People” is not exactly a cross-over play; it’s too specific a survey to overlay on other cultures or religions. Even so, the characters who question their identities, their relationship to their roots, feel universal. The cast of 10, including musicians who play klezmer-inspired music by Daniel Perelstein, portray more than 80 characters of more colors than the coat Jacob gave to his son Joseph in the Bible. “In my day,” says an elder who pooh-poohs such ailments as mad cow disease, “we had one thing: pluracy!” Declares a young woman: “Zayde (Grandpop), I miss you… and I’ve got a girlfriend named Carla.” (At least, she says, Carla is Jewish.) To those who’ve preceded him, a young man avers: “If all you want is to make my life worth your sacrifice, that’s a pretty tall order.”
The multi-cultural cast mixes it up under director Rebecca Wright’s complex but precise supervision. Men sometimes play women, women are men and all of them accessorize the script with Hebrew or Yiddish in perfect pronunciation and solid English accents of Eastern European immigrants. (That’s all the more impressive because no dialect coach is listed in the program notes.)
“A People,” I’m sorry to report, is the final show from Orbiter 3, the city’s first producing collective of playwrights. The collective had planned to present six new works over three seasons, then disband as a producer of theater – in fact, “A People” is the seventh production from Orbiter 3. I’d say that with “A People,” the group goes out with a bang. But they’ve been moving along with the same impact for all three years, a remarkable top-quality project that has enriched both theater and audiences.
“A People,” produced by Orbiter 3, runs through June 2 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on 10th Street between Market and Chestnut Streets. More information: orbiter3.org.