MJTC’s ‘We Are The Levinsons’ Tugs At The Heartstrings

What makes a Levinson a Levinson? Three things: Levinsons never quit, they never cry and, if there’s a joke to be found in any situation, they track it down and utter it. With the world premiere of Wendy Kout’s We are the Levinsons, running through May 14, Minnesota Jewish Theater Company has yet another hit. Kout’s compelling comedy about a bi-coastal Jewish family as they live through – and learn from – one parent’s death and the onset of dementia in the other is sweet and sad and funny at all the same time.

Lenny Levinson (Robert Dorfman) is one of those types of men who whose greatest pleasure is to see his wife smile. Lil (Nancy Marvy) and Lenny like to ballroom dance in the living room and kibbitz about their daughter, divorced middle-aged TV sitcom writer Rosie (Melinda Kordich), and (somewhat flakey) granddaughter Sara who lives with Mom in New York while she seemingly trying to find her way to college and figures out what she wants to do with her life. Like all Levinsons, Lil and Lenny are talkers. Lil fusses about Lenny’s health, his food, his everything, and the two bicker lightly sometimes – but in a way that resembles nothing so much as flirting. Retired and living in an elegant condo in Sherman Oaks, Calif., the couple now has the opportunity to spend every moment together and it’s heaven.

So when Lil suddenly dies of a stroke after her 88th birthday, it is so horrible a shock to Lenny that it triggers the onset of dementia. After she receives her father’s official diagnosis, Rosie makes a decision. If Dad is going to mentally decline, she is going to make sure that he does so in his own home and in the presence of a loved one. She hunkers down with Lenny in Sherman Oaks and assumes the role of caretaker. True she’s not a great housekeeper and she doesn’t know how to cook but they’ll get by somehow on love – and tongue sandwiches.

Rosie tries really, really hard to make the arrangement work, but when Lenny’s memory worsens and he starts to lose control of his moods she realizes she cannot do it alone. She decides to hire a home health care worker to assist her, but finding a good fit doesn’t exactly go smoothly. Lenny, as it turns out, is a virulent homophobe, which is why he won’t cooperate with the first two candidates Rosie interviews. (He will not allow a man to give him a shower). So Rosie looks for a woman, and eventually, she finds one with an outstanding resume. Grace (Alyssa DiVirgilio) is perfect, a godsend — and she happens to be trans. When Lenny is introduced to her, he refuses even to shake her hand.

Rosie (Melinda Kordich) takes on the role of caretaker for her father (Robert Dorfman) in "We are the Levinsons." Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Rosie (Melinda Kordich) takes on the role of caretaker for her father (Robert Dorfman) in “We are the Levinsons.” Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Often however when Lenny’s temper flares he “sees things” – in particular, he sees Lil, his deceased wife (“Ghost Mom”, Rosie calls her), who in a sense functions as Lenny’s conscience. Ghost Lil shows up just before Grace leaves the condo to scold Lenny for his behavior. He has lived his life as a good man, she reminds him, and besides, “We’re Jews,” and we know what prejudice feels like. After Lil’s prompting, Lenny stops and corrects himself. He apologizes to Grace and holds out his hand to her, asking her to stay.

One of Kout’s themes is that loving and being loved makes us want to be better persons. Even though Lil is dead, Lenny struggles not to “let her down.” At first, his relationship with Grace is turbulent, but over time he comes to see what a menschele Grace is and he learns to respect and even love her. Grace, Lenny tells Rosie, is mishpocha. And Grace who has come to be tight with Rosie and Sara seems to feel the same way.

An exceptionally strong cast helps to keep the banter rolling and the characters richly realized. As self-deprecating Rosie, Melinda Kordich is funny, courageous, and immensely likable. Kordich knows how to deliver one-liners and wisecracks without sacrificing naturalism. She is particularly compelling in her scenes with Sara, played by Adelin Phelps, in a beautifully layered performance. Rebelliousness and neediness may be two ends of the same stick, but it is still challenging to convey both at once. Phelps not only manages it with aplomb, she is also able (somehow) to make Sara simultaneously bratty and compelling. As Lil (and Lil’s ghost), Nancy Marvy is effective in keeping Lil’s sarcasm from grating, and her fussiness and affectionate nature from ever being cloying, all the while giving the character gravitas. Alyssa DiVirgilio, a bright new face on Twin Cities stages, brings dignity and a lovely restraint to the role of Grace; she will melt your heart when she describes her vision of a baby and a family of her own.

But the show belongs to Dorfman, as he transforms from devoted husband and quirky but loving father to bereaved widower to confused and uncertain dependent – who can’t remember how to put on his pants and whose personality shifts from moment to moment. Dorfman is delightfully capricious when Lenny is in his almost-right mind. (Lenny’s sense of humor is sharp to the very end.) But at those moments when he is lashing out at Grace, or swinging his arms helplessly as Rosie watches – he’s both pitiable and terrifying. Dorfman does not try to soften Lenny’s dark side — which can get pretty ugly at moments — but he also always allows us to see the fear and the despair that drives his anger. In his scenes with ghost Lil, Dorfman evokes heartbreaking pathos. As we watch Dorfman’s face brighten to a hundred watts, as he follows his Lil across the stage to sit in the chair beside him, we understand why Lenny cannot let her go.

Kout’s characters are highly individualized and rich in idiosyncrasies, and the play is well structured throughout. The only time I felt the play was a bit off was at the very end. Kout’s touch is light and her writing wonderfully nuanced throughout. We come to understand the Levinsons and to care about them. Yet, at the very close, she has one character sort of explain what it is that makes them admirable. It is a hiccup – it does not detract from the overall charm and loveliness of this of the play – but Kout’s writing is strong enough that she does not need it. No matter though. If you go to see We are the Levinsons, you will be moved, you’ll laugh and you’ll feel warm inside, and you might just find you have a craving for tongue sandwiches.

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We Are the Levinsons, by Wendy Kout, directed by Kurt Schweickhardt. Through May 14th at Minnesota Jewish Theater Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul. Tickets $20-34. For tickets or further information go to mnjewishtheatre.org or call 651-647-4315