Play 'finds breadth in history'

Luke Hofmaier and Lilli Hokama star in Chester Theatre's production of "Now Circa Then," a play by Carly Mensch.

Chester — Margie has gotten off the train in a city of strangers, wanting to test her strength.

"Sometimes, I get overwhelmed," she tells Gideon one night after hours, " that I'm never going to achieve my full potential as a human being on this earth."

She has just started working with him. They are reenactors at the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side, playing Julian and Josephine Glockner, who came to New York in 1890 from a small river town in what is now the Ukraine.

Lilli Hokama, as Margie, and Luke Hofmaier, as Gideon, are looking for a clearer future in "Now Circa Then," on stage beginning July 4 through July 14 at Chester Theater.

"Margie is a recent transplant to New York from Michigan," Hokama said.

Before now, she has not found museums familiar places. She is an English major, adventurous, young, surging into the world beyond her small town.

Gideon is just as young, arrogant and gentle, and he is beginning to feel that his familiar structures have limits that he is only now starting to see.

"Gideon is a self-described hardcore history buff," Hofmaier said. "He takes it seriously."

He has performed roles in Gettysburg, the Boston Fire of 1872, Plymouth, a living history farm in Iowa.

"Gideon is confident in his alter-ego, but he doesn't examine himself," Hofmaier said. "He is ignorant about his own past. He keeps putting it on the side. He has avoided it for emotional reasons, and maybe he finds himself not as interesting as these people. They have faced real adversity. They come from somewhere."

He finds history in day-to-day things, Hofmaier said. He can find stories in objects and small interactions — who made a wooden clock. How the rising cost of potatoes strains a tight household budget. Gideon is a homebody. He grew up in New York, Hofmaier said, and he has stayed there. And he is drawn to Julian, who traveled in steerage across the Atlantic and risked diseases on the boat, and had his mattress stolen as soon as he landed, and met obstacles, heartache and death. Gideon finds meaning in the struggle and a bond in it.

Julian is in love with his wife and proud to show it, Hofmaier said. He is newly married, ambitious and working to build a new life. Margie can understand that striving. She wants to do something big, Hokama said. She wants to live fully, in this world, in this time.

The past is weighted, and she does not want it to get in her way.

"Margie thinks history is bulls--t," Hokama said, quoting: "It's not important. Why are we not writing our own stories right now?"

Margie is from a small town in the Midwest — she defines her heritage as eating corn on the cob and watching Harrison Ford movies. Hokama can understand Margie's tension and drive.

"As a woman of color growing up in a white area, I knew I was different, but I didn't always know why," she said.

Like Margie's, Hokama's family and hometown and culture are mainstream American. Her father's family survived the internment camps in World War II, she said, when Japanese American families were forced from their homes. After that isolation, her family dropped all of their Japanese culture intentionally. They would eat only American food — they would be American in every way.

But as she learns Josephine's story, Margie develops an appreciation for the past. Eating lunch out of a vending machine and looking for a place to sleep for more than a few nights, Margie feels a clear connection with Josephine as she works late in her cramped apartment, facing a tenement landlord and the rising cost of cheap cuts of meat.

"Margie discovers her, over the course of the play," Hokama said. "Josephine takes over the family business after her husband's death and runs it successfully. She raises five children."

As she and Gideon spar over what history looks like, how to tell it and who speaks, Hokama hears Margie saying, "Why does it matter that I'm not a white, Jewish, Eastern European woman — why can't I tell her story?"

And Margie begins to tell the story in new ways, raw and blunt ways. She finds anguish in events that touched Josephine's life, like the Triangle Factory Fire.

"Margie finds breadth in history," Hokama said. "It's a living thing. Some things are written, but there is so much space between that she gets to live in and explore."

She begins to understand the social, political and economic forces that effected Josephine and the people around her.

"Margie has this monologue about how everyone's trying to go to New York City," Hokama said. "It's a hub — which it is — but as she's going through the public library, she realizes a lot of people also leave. There's an ebb and flow. It's a port for the world. She had to go to New York to find herself and figure this stuff out, and Gideon has to leave New York to figure himself out."

They are both young. They can make choices that hurt themselves and each other. They can be immature. They can drop into insults and stereotypes and caricature, consciously or unconsciously, and they can get called on it sometimes.

"We're in an uncomfortable place and time," Hokama said, "and we'll make mistakes. It's OK to sit with that discomfort, because it means we're trying. It keeps it real. These characters speak wrongly or ignorantly about things."

History becomes broader for Gideon too, and the idea can frighten him.

"Gideon's been resting on this obsession with history," Hofmaier said. "He wants an order to the past, to say we know this happened. The future is uncertain, dangerous and scary. You might not like it."

But that breadth can release him, as well.

"The story of his life is as important as others," Hofmaier said, "and it is important to live your own life."

Exploring the role has made him think.

"I don't know my own family history that well," he said, "and why don't I? Seeing how passionate these characters are about history speaking as a white man, I don't say 'I'm German,' or 'I'm of Irish or Scottish descent.'"

"People probably don't ask," Hokama said.

He agreed. "I need to examine my own history more. That's the life we're living right now. The answers for how to live now."

Hokama considered.

"I'm not a history buff," she said, "and Margie isn't either. What struck me and Margie is that these people are still fighting for the same things we are — to understand our purpose, what they have to know to survive each day, all they live through. They struggle, and they have joy too. No matter what part of history you're in, there's so much humanity in everyone's story."