Onstage at the Unicorn Theatre, 'What the Jews Believe' doesn't quite carry the convictions of its beliefs

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STOCKBRIDGE — There is a nearly magical moment roughly a quarter of the way through the first act of Mark Harelik's "What the Jews Believe," which is being given an earnest, if also fitful and faltering, at best, production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre.

It is evening, 1962, at the home of Dave Estanitsky (Benim Foster), the son of a Jewish immigrant from Russia who is raising his family — his wife, Rachel (Emily Donahoe), and their 12 -year-old son, Nathan (an overly eager Logan Weibrecht) — in a small town in rural Texas. They are the only Jews in town, which is a fair remove from the nearest big city, El Paso, with any kind of Jewish community. It is here that Dave continues to run the family business, a dry goods store established by his long deceased father, Hillel, whose voice is preserved on a series of records Dave has given Nathan to use in preparation for his bar mitzvah.

Now, in this moment, Nathan has just gone to bed and Sarah (Cynthia Mace), Rachel's aunt on her mother's side, also has retired. Dave and Rachel are only just home from a wearing and wearying drive back from Los Angeles, where Rachel has gone for treatment of her cancer, only to be told that at this stage there is no more that can be done. And so, alone on the porch with Dave, Rachel sees lightning off in the distance but there is no thunder. "Takes a while to get here," Dave explains. "I'm waiting, waiting, waiting," she replies, meaningfully. And so begins a scene of affecting tenderness and profound intimacy between these two — one a man who feels the need to hand down to Nathan a tradition, a religion, a way of life which he does not observe himself; the other, a woman facing mortality, the impending end of a life that would otherwise be in its prime. She also is losing her faith, her belief in God and Judaism.

Dave and Rachel laugh, kiss; he holds her up as the exhaustion from the road trip takes hold but not without, at the same time, a deep and profound sexual longing that speaks to Rachel of an assertion of life.

As playwright-director Harelik's production unfolds, however, the undercurrents that fashion connection on any number of levels rarely appear, with one notable exception — an extended sequence toward the end of the frst act in which a desperate Rachel engages the visiting rabbi who is coaching Nathan in his bar mitzvah blessings and rituals in a compelling discussion about the fairness, and the questionable justice in the universe that has turned God against her.

"Why am I dying?" she asks the bewildered rabbi (played expertly by Robert Zukerman).

"I have cancer and I've gotten a bunch of treatments and they kind of wrecked me and they didn't work," Rachel explains. "So, I'm dying. This is what I know. What I don't know is why God is letting this happen to me," she says with all the hard confusion and resentment she can muster. "I'm being very blunt," she says a few moments later, "which is not my usual ..."

And so, on the heels of an equally engaging scene involving the rabbi, Nathan and Dave that deals with fundamental questions about faith, belief, tradition, meaning, connection with God, off "What the Jews Believe" goes in a profound, probing, wrenching back and forth, especially for, full disclosure, those of us who have suffered a recent deep and profound loss.

Faith is in short supply for Rachel, which is why she eventually finds comfort and answers later when Sarah persuades her that the path to faith and healing lies in accepting Jesus Christ.

For all the bumps in Harelik's writing, with the exception of Zukerman's Rabbi Bindler, the performances under Harelik's direction fall short not only of the play's strengths but also its weaknesses. Too often we have the sense of merely marking time between debates.

There is an underlying feeling in Harelik's writing that Dave keeps a good deal to himself. He is protective of Rachel, both reaching for and turning away help. He does not suffer fools gladly, especially Sarah. But Foster's portrayal of Dave succeeds only in making an enigma of an enigma. Like Kim Smith's lighting design for this production, Foster delivers a poorly lit interpretation that falls far shirt of the opportunities Harelik provies in his script.

As played by Weibrecht — a Lenox Memorial High School junior and veteran of several BTG summer community musical who now is appearing in his first Equity show at BTG — Nathan is more intrusive than engaging. Nathan, whose refuge is a seemingly unending supply of knock-knock and other corny jokes, is asked to take on a lot fort an adolescent — a mother who is dying; a tradition and ceremony to which he has little, if any connection. The life he has known as a boy, a pre-teen, is about to change in fundamental ways. Coming of age as a bar mitzvah carries a different resonance for Nathan. At best, Weibrecht's is an earnest performance.

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Mace's rhythms at the performance I saw were too often cautious, tentative; an actress feeling her way rather than a character uncertain, at times, of her ground.

With the exceptions of the scene on the porch, Donahoe also makes her way, even in her critical scene with Rabbi Bindler, with a degree of uncertainty; of holding back; of effort that is, at best, hit and miss.

There is a lot to be had in the unfortunately titled "What the Jews Believe." It is not accidental that the play's thematic texture takes on a nuance of Jews in exile; seeking place, permanence, even in a kind of wilderness; of what it means to make home, community, even if only as a family unit, and maintain tradition in ways that sustain meaning as time moves on.

The action in "What the Jews Believe" unfolds within and immediately without a contained space, a house, but it too often rambles as aimlessly as the vista that extends beyond the Estanitsky house — a landscape with distant lightning and thunder without sound.

Theater review

What: "What Jews Believe." Written and directed by Mark Harelik

With: Benim Foster, Emily Donahoe, Logan Weibrecht, Cynthia Mace, Robert Zukerman

Who: Berkshire Theatre Group, in association with The American National Theatre

Where: Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge

When: Now through Oct. 20. Evenings — Thursdays through Saturdays and Oct. 16 at 7. Matinees — Saturdays and Sundays at 2

Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

Tickets: $52

Reservations/Information: 413-997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org


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