Walking into the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company on a Saturday night always has a bit of a nostalgic feel for me as it was the first company to hire me outside of my UMN degree program. Close to 20 years later I now know more members of the audience than the production, yet the intimacy of the Highland Park Community Center always feels like coming home and has a cozy feel for even first-time audience members. MJTC is currently playing The Last Schwartz now through November 11th at their Hillcrest Community Center home in Highland Park.
The show is centered around four siblings who have gathered in their parents’ home for the anniversary of their father’s death. The weekend becomes anything but the warm and fuzzy homecoming some of the characters hope for. The script packs in a lot of opportunities for post-show thought and conversation. Most notably, the emotional vulnerability of infertility is addressed in a way that is both heartbreaking and refreshing. Religious observance, traditional male and female roles associated with their upbringing, and even their own basic belief systems are all addressed without feeling like the audience is being given a morality lesson. I imagine few members of the audience will struggle to find a connection with some aspect of the sibling rivalry, or how hung up we can get on passing down family traditions.
Emily Dussault’s Kia is a delightful spot of comic relief in a play that could easily feel too heavy. She plays a non-Jewish character whose questions and innocence give the playwright a nice way to make the play accessible to a wide variety of Jews and non-Jews alike. Dussault brings a realness to Kia’s interest that will probably feel very familiar to anyone who has felt obliged to speak on behalf of all Jews, regardless of your religious observance. Laura Stearns Adams, (previously seen at MJTC as Claire in My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding), as Norma does a beautiful job of forcing us to consider how different each child can each see our parents and how those views affect us well into our own adulthood. Heidi Fellner (previously seen in MJTC as Aunt Raini) as Bonnie plays the wife of oldest brother Herb (played by Matt Sciple). The two effortlessly display the array of emotions that come with the ups and downs of a long marriage. The cast is rounded out with the two younger brothers, Gene (played by Damian Leverett) and Simon (played by Corey DiNardo). The two younger brothers add layers to the conversations about cultural vs religious aspects of Judaism.
Having seen many productions at MJTC over the years, I’m always excited to see the space used in different ways. The entire show takes place in the living and dining room of the Schwartz house while the hallways and upstairs are still clearly defined. Director Warren C. Bowles didn’t need to turn to any non-traditional uses of space, but it never once felt stiff or dull. Each character’s reactions made the home itself another character. There were so many lovely moments in the show that left me wondering what comes next for these characters.