I will be the first to admit I am a complete script snob when it comes to theatre. I don’t believe an audience member should have to do any preparation before entering the world of the show, whether it’s an experimental performance piece or classically-done Shakespeare. Presenting the story and its complexities is the job of the playwright, actors, directors and production staff. With the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s new show Actually, this job is done with skill and care by director Harry Waters, Jr. and all those involved in this stunning show.
Amber and Tom are freshmen at Princeton in 2016, trying to figure out what they are doing with their lives. In a sentence, the show is about date rape; but there is no way one sentence can describe this show that hits you in the stomach, the heart, and the head multiple times. A story about two 18-year olds just beginning their adult lives resonated with me, as many of us know age doesn’t always fix our insecurities. In addition to being a show that is very specifically about consent, it is also a show about how we see ourselves. It’s a show about the cycle that gets created when we don’t trust ourselves to be ourselves. How people treat us shapes our behavior, which shapes how we see ourselves. The serious subject of the show was well-balanced with softer, even humorous moments of character memories and musings, allowing us an occasional break from the tension of such a daunting subject. In addition to the expected adult themes, strong language adds an appropriately jolting layer of force to the dialogue.
The show’s energy was electric on Sunday afternoon, the second performance of the four-week run. I can only imagine the previous night’s opening was magical. I have every confidence each performance will equal or exceed the previous. JuCoby Johnson gave Tom a vulnerability rarely allowed to male characters in any medium. It was not just refreshing, but so necessary in our world. He was engaged with the audience to the point where I was sure he was looking right at me several times. Amber, played by Miriam Schwartz, comes across as a stereotypical neurotic Jewish female character. Yet…she was exactly all of us. She just wanted to find herself – to feel comfortable in her own body. The honesty of feeling so unsure of yourself so much of the time was uncomfortably familiar. Schwartz let you see her character’s confidence and confusion, and the complexities that exist when desire is wrapped up in our own insecurities.
While the script and actor choices thrilled me, I was must admit I was less enthusiastic about the set. The performance area at Hillcrest Community Center has its challenges, but after seeing dozens of shows there over the years I wanted something that anchored the show a little bit more in a specific time and space. At the same time, I can recognize the ambiguity of the set works with some of the ambiguity of the show itself. What the set lacked in giving us a specific sense of place and time, the sound design fulfilled while setting the tone for the moment. Tom’s love of music was beautifully highlighted by the show’s score, letting us see its importance in his life.
Actually is the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at its finest. The show is beautiful, complicated, and honest. It plays now through March 10 at the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul. Tickets can be purchased online, or by phone at 651-647-4315.