Swift Creek Mill’s ‘The Little Lion’ dramatizes mankind’s darkest moment
The Jews are coming! The Jews are coming! As a Jewish theater critic am I allowed to make the comment without being tagged insensitive? Who better?
In 2012, 2.29 % of Richmond’s population was Jewish. In Richmond’s theater community, it might be as high as 5% (we and gay men are naturally drawn to show biz). Richmond’s LGBT population of 3.5 % (according to the New York Times’ analysis of Gallup’s survey) might make up the largest percentage of Richmond’s theater going public but it’s followed closely by Richmond’s 2.29% of Jews.
I bring this up because all of a sudden there is an influx of Jewish themed plays flooding Baptist-Richmond. 5th Wall’s Unexpected Tenderness, Theater’s Lab’s upcoming Bad Jews, Jewish Family Theater’s (where you expect it to belong), Sisters Rosensweig, Quill Theater’s upcoming Merchant of Venice, and here, Swift Creek Mill’s The Little Lion.
This phenomenon is no coincidence. Tis the season for the annual Acts of Faith Festival. As you may recall, crossing religious and cultural lines, the Acts of Faith Festival, which happens every winter, is a festival which provides a venue for ecumenical conversations about faith and theatre while helping Richmond’s dynamic and diverse theatre community reach new audiences in a meaningful way.
The plethora of Judaic dramaturgy has a lot to do with the fact that Jews have always been at the forefront of playwriting and overwhelmingly of musical theater. Recently, playwriting, in general, has experienced the 21st century phenomena that Jews started writing about themselves.
Hallelujah! While all well and good, can Richmond’s 95% goyim theater community do justice to the Hebraic genre? Difficult. No kidding.
Swift Creek Mill’s The Little Lion is a case in study. Irene Ziegler is a serious playwright of Jewish ancestry. As a veteran actress, director and playwright, the subject matter is squarely within her wheelhouse and she has brought her unique perspective to bear. Commissioned to write this skit based upon Nancy Wright Beasley’s popular book of the same name, Ms. Ziegler has a fairly gripping play contained in the three hours of drama I witnessed at Swift Creek.
That gripping play however, is probably no more than 100 minutes long. Asking an audience to come back after intermission for 90 more minutes of Holocaust horror is perhaps much.
I have not read the book, so I don’t know what Ms. Ziegler’s challenges were in condensing the story into a concise focused drama. There are many wonderful, heartbreaking scenes brought to life with extraordinary pathos by some very fine actors, young and old. There are, however, as many less important, more educationally expository scenes which slow the action and do not add to character or plot development. As the German king famously quipped to Mozart in Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus, “Simply too many notes.”
This is a fine work that needs more time to become what it was meant to be. Perhaps not reasonable given the time specific assignment, but critically necessary to let the good drama out.
And how does the production fare? The production elements are some of the finest I’ve seen. First, a beautiful space. How lucky they are at Swift Creek Mill. The direction of Tom Width is superbly coordinated with his very talented production team. Less well orchestrated is the staging. The tender moments are inhibited by disjointed physical mapping and very often there are awkward clusters of people. That said, moving 22 people around is not easy. Creating meaningful symbolic community moments even harder. The mixture of symbol and reality is a slippery slope and one that gets the best of Mr. Width during several crucial moments. Fortunately Mr. Width is aided by some exceptional acting and an excellent production staff which includes himself.
The scenic design by Width is excellent. Three sloping platforms on which to shift the action with plenty of space around to contain his cast of 22, the action is fluid. The space allows the actors to be nimble and purposed in their movements. The set is enveloped by a wood slat wall throughout, adding to the feel and look of this place specific piece. As meaningful, if not slightly more affecting is Joe Doran’s lighting design. The streaks of light, the shadows of people and things, the grim shift of shadow and light piecing the walls like shards of glass, invading the space like a deadly gas, it’s one of the most accomplished and integrated lighting schemes I’ve seen in a while.
Jason “Blue” Herbert’s dual accomplishments of Production and Sound Design added, lifted and exalted Ms. Ziegler’s words. The projections were disturbing and deadly accurate, the sound bouncing from wall to wall inside the theater like some kind of Dolby inspired pin ball machine.
Affecting, scary, right on the mark. Paul Diess’ music and sound effects blended in concert with the cacophony of events, disturbingly shifting as the world changed for this brave, unfortunate family. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes transformed 21st century sensibilities into a mid 20th century peasant world with ease and lack of fussiness.
You couldn‘t ask for a finer production team.
And the actors? All better people because they have been to Jew School. Better now to appreciate my history with greater understanding. We can teach you our dance, the “Hora” (which you did well in slow motion) and train your falsely bearded rabbi to giving pretty accurate interpretations of the Mourner’s Kaddish and one of our most beloved hymns (Odon Olum), so why can’t we get you to do the guttural “ccchhhhhuh” sound in words like Channukah and Challa or chutzpah. If you can roll your “r”s why can’t you do that? Oy vey.
John Minks is our hero, Laibale, the Little Lion. I don’t know that the script gives him enough heroic feats to be so named, but what I do know is that Mr. Minks is a treasure. Committed and present, affected and affecting, he gives his soul to his part. He makes other actors better. The best scenes were small scenes. Most affecting for me were between he and his mother, between he and the local goy jerk, Valter and between he and his good friend, the lice ridden Joel.
It helps that I named three actors with great talent. Lisa Kotula broke my heart as his momma repeatedly. The joy her son gives her, the terror of her being unable to save her family, the dignity in which she refuses to succumb to evil. We all have mothers and perhaps that’s why but Ms. Kotula made me miss my momma very much.
Greatfully, Ms. Ziegler allows her goy jerk to be human for one scene. Matt Hackman takes this nourishment and paints a fully developed, conflicted boy, scared, angry and drunk with power. I fully expected him to help Laibale, but alas his humanity was short lived.
Lucian Restivo heads up a group of young actors who showed their very best in service to this play. Too many to give deserved mention to in this already over long critique, among the best are Alex Burtness, Tricia Wiles, Grace Kolbert, Caleb Wade, and Billy-Christopher Maupin (too good as an evil Nazi for my comfort).
The older actors, interestingly, fared less well with the notable exception of John Hagadorn. The remainder of the cast didn’t fare well because their characters never had the space to develop, perhaps another factor Ms. Ziegler might consider when refining her work.
And I hope the work does get refined. An intimate tale without the grand sweeping objective of a film like Shindler’s List, this is a simple story of the courage and fate of one Lithuanian family. It is a smaller important play. I can’t wait to see that one.
The Little Lion runs through March 5, you can pick up tickets here.
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