Greater Boston Stage’s ‘All Is Calm’ Strikes the Perfect Chord

by Shelley A. Sackett

Cast of ‘All is Calm’ at Greater Boston Stage Company. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

From the first note of the first song in the remarkably affecting ‘All Is Calm,’ the choreography chops of its director, Ilyse Robbins, are indisputably evident. Two lines of uniformed men, distinguishable by their country’s military dress, slowly march to the front of the stage as they sing the Scottish folk song, “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” They briefly merge, forming a united single line, before those in the back row return to their original and separate positions. This powerful prologue literally sets the stage and tone for the next intermission-less 70 minutes. We have entered a holy place of unity where a folksong can become a hymnal and where men have the power and ability to come together as one, even if it is merely for a fleeting moment.

This documentary musical tells a well-known true story almost exclusively through a cappella song. On Christmas Day in 1914, with World War I just five months old, enlisted men on both sides of the mucky no-mans-land trenches in Ypres, Belgium emerged to put aside their political differences and celebrate the day and their shared humanity.

Written by Peter Rothstein, the founding director of Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis who also worked at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, the play transcends its Christmas Day message and carols to deliver a powerful and universal message promoting peace, human dignity and reconciliation — a message no less welcomed by those of us lighting Hanukkah candles, spinning dreidels and recalling the battles faced by the Maccabees.

Combining storytelling, historical details, bits of poetry, archival letters and a score of 30 songs, the cast of ten men humanize their journey: from the optimism of their enthusiastic enlistment and deployment to the grim reality of war to the miraculous Christmas respite and momentary truce and back again to battle, they are individuals first, soldiers second. Robbins has gathered a splendid ensemble of complementary singing voices and acting styles, yet masterfully allows space for each performer’s unique qualities to shine as well.

The story itself is predictable. Men susceptible to war fever and the excitement it generated are crestfallen to realize that they might not survive the war they assumed would be over by Christmas. Hope curdles to despair; dreams of adventure morph into nightmares of doom. There is no revisionist history here. Rothstein presents the hardships and suffering of war in full mud-soaked misery.

What is not predictable is the emotional majesty created by Lichte and Takach’s clever interweaving and ordering of songs, particularly those chosen during the truce segment. Amidst the heartache and heartbreak of a Christmas celebrated with death and isolation instead of family and hearth, the Allied troops suddenly make out the familiar melody of “Silent Night” — sung in German. Unarmed, hands lifted and hoisting white handkerchiefs, the Germans emerge one by one. Sworn enemies unexpectedly find themselves face-to-face, one-to-one with the enemy, and “all is calm. All is bright.” Indeed, for those gun-less few moments, all is breathtakingly silent.

The men play football, exchange gifts and even help each other bury those whose deaths they caused. They talk as men, not enemies. “I have now a very different opinion of the Germans,” one soldier wistfully says.

Of course, this bottom-up hiatus can never last. Commanding officers on both sides put an immediate halt to the fraternization, and the soldiers reluctantly return to their trenches, guns obediently re-cocked and aimed. The plaintive “Auld Land Syne,” an ode to kinship remembered, switches almost imperceptibly to “We’re Here Because We’re Here,” sung mournfully as a lamentation to the immovable trap the troops find themselves in.

There are a few tricky moments with the European accents, but the cast is uniformly spot on with the a cappella singing, blending beautifully and consistently. Among the solo standouts are Christopher Chew, Brad Peloquin and David Jiles, Jr. Michael Jennings Mahoney’s haunting tenor beautifully bookended the show from prologue to epilogue.

Erik D. Diaz’s minimalist set design achieves maximum effect. A few packing crates, a starry full mooned backdrop and the constant slow seep of gauzy haze set the proper tone without distraction.

Although there is no ambiguity that ‘All Is Calm’ references Christmas, its universal message of peace transcends specificity of time, place and religion. Particularly during these times of increasing political rancor and division, this meditative production is palpably apolitical, yet makes its point while leaving us to wonder: What if ‘No Man’s Land” were truly ‘Everyman’s Land?” What if those at the top left negotiations to those in trenches? And what if those troops, ordered to go back to war after tasting the fruits of peace, had listened to Winston Churchill and simply gone on strike?

‘All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’ – Written by Peter Rothstein; Vocal Arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Directed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction by Matthew Stern; Set Design by Erik D. Diaz; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Costume Design by Bethany Mullins. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company at 395 Main St., Stoneham through December 23, 2021.For more information or to purchase tickets, call (781) 279-2200 or visit greaterbostonstage.org. Masks are required for all visitors, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. For more information about safety, visit geraterbostonstage.org/health-and-safety.html.

Arlekin Players Theatre’s documentary theater piece “Witness” asks “Where do unwanted people go?”

Igor Golyak

By Shelley A. Sackett

When Igor Golyak, founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre, was doing research for “The Merchant of Venice,” he was smacked in the face by the discovery that the Jews have been on the move throughout the span of their existence as a people. Their constant migration reminded him of his own family, which emigrated in 2004 from the Ukraine .

Then, on July 1, Brighton Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was stabbed. Golyak attended a meeting with other Jewish refugees and he remembers someone asking, “Where do we go now?”

“My family came here to escape anti-Semitism. What I suddenly understood is that there is no escaping anti-Semitism,” Golyak said by phone. That realization was the germ of the bold and complex new virtual documentary theater piece, “Witness,” which bears witness to the migratory experience of Jews throughout history. Based on interviews of Jewish people around the world by the Arlekin company members, along with historical records and documents, this timely piece will tell a multiplicity of stories of migration, displacement, home and identity.

“I want to make anti-Semitism and hate visible to people so they see that it doesn’t live only with Nazis and in history, but is here today. That’s the first step to trying to identify the problem,” he said.

Golyak enlisted the help of Moscow-based playwright Nana Grinstein to translate his idea into a script. He explained he wanted the play to be “documentary theater” — built out of historical primary sources (letters, journals, telegrams, newspapers, etc.) and interviews describing first-hand experiences— about what makes Jews move around the world.

Grinstein often works on this type of project and did a deep dive into what historical options existed that could be an accurate metaphor for this idea.

She proposed the history of the liner St. Louis, which sailed from Nazi Germany in 1939 shortly after Kristallnacht, but was not accepted by Cuba, the United States or Canada. The 900 Jews on board, who understood that their return to Germany meant certain death, spent several weeks on the ocean.

“The Holocaust is impossible to understand to this day. As one of the St. Louis passengers said, ‘I don’t understand how the world could watch this and nobody did anything about it.’ I hope the audience will find themselves in the shoes of the Jews, who have been, and still are, under the pressure of anti-Semitism, which has many forms — from everyday xenophobia to terror and massacres,” Grinstein said by email.

Golyak loved the St. Louis metaphor for the concept: Where Do People Go? He next contacted dramaturg Blair Cadden, whose job would be to help bring “Witness” to life by learning as much as possible about the play, the medium (virtual, immersive and interactive) and the context of its creation.

The end result will be a blend of pre-recorded and live performances that includes elements of interactivity with the audience. Set on a boat in digital space, actors and audience members will share a live interactive experience as they move together between countries and time periods in a game of life and death set in a virtual world. Previews begin December 10 with the World Premiere scheduled December 13.

“Witness“ brings a lot of theatricality and inventiveness to the way these true stories are presented. “The St. Louis is a vivid microcosm of the larger experience that is shared by so many Jews across the world,” Cadden explained by email. “Documentary theater is an exciting genre because it invites the audience to form a different connection with that history. Things that might feel very distant when we encounter them in the pages of a history book take a new immediacy in live theater.”

The performance, accessible on Zoom to an international audience through Arlekin’s Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, allows the audience to gather from across geographical locations and time zones. The Arlekin team hopes people will share their own emigration stories for inclusion in the production (to share your or your family’s story, contact story@arlekinplayers.com or visit arlekinplayers.com/witness/)

Golyak hasn’t decided yet if parts of his own story will be included. He was brought up in the Soviet Union, where being Jewish was difficult. He was eight-years-old when his father, one morning while shaving, paused, faced his son, and told him matter-of-factly and out of the blue, “Oh, by the way, you’re Jewish.”

He then turned back to the mirror and continued shaving.

“It was like finding out you are from Mars,” Golyak said without a laugh. There was no context in Russia for what being Jewish entailed. “How does that affect who I am? There’s no language, there’s no land. I’m told I am a Jew, but what does that actually mean?” It is a question he is still trying to answer.

Cadden, who is not Jewish and whose ancestors came to the United States so long ago that no one in family remembers exactly when, hopes the common threads between the experience of the St. Louis passengers and the experiences of more recent Jewish immigrants and refugees will affect Jews and non-Jews alike. For those who share the Jewish heritage and/or immigrant experience, she hopes it will be a moment to feel seen and connected.

For everyone, it should be “an eye-opener to the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism in our own society and an invitation to empathize with the experiences of immigration and this search for Jewish identity and a sense of belonging,” she said.

Golyak hopes his “Witness” makes the audience aware of the prevalence of anti-Semitism today. “That’s the first step: to identify the problem. And then, hopefully, this will inspire people to think about and acknowledge the fact that this problem exists, so we can somehow try to solve it,” he said.

For more information or to buy tickets, visit arlekinplayers.com/2021-22-season/

Annual JArts Hanukkah celebration at the MFA has a new feminine twist

Yemenite singer and songwriter Tair Haim

By Shelley A. Sackett

BOSTON – Since 2015, Jewish Arts Collaborative has brought the Greater Boston community together to celebrate Hanukkah at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Despite Covid constraints, JArts, the MFA and JCC Association of North America and their JFest program have collaborated to bring an innovative and uplifting Hanukkah program into the homes of celebrants across the country with their virtual event on Wednesday, December 1, “Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights.”

This year, the tradition of partnering with local artists and communities to create an exceptional evening for all ages has a special feminine twist.

The free program will feature eight Hanukkah lamps, including six from the MFA’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection, and eight international women artists for an evening of performance, education, global diversity and artistic engagement. Like an elegant wine pairing where patrons enjoy wine at its fullest potential by pairing it with the perfect food, these performances and lamps elevate and balance each other, bringing out the best in both.

German Rococo Hanukkah Lamp, about 1750 Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Each piece will last approximately five minutes. Slides of the corresponding lamp will appear during the presentations.

The idea behind this year’s theme germinated from brainstorming sessions between Laura Conrad Mandel, JArts Executive Director, and the MFA’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, Simona Di Nepi.

Originally from Rome, Di Nepi studied and worked in London and Tel Aviv for 25 years before coming to the US. She became the first full-time Judaica curator at the MFA (as well as at any other encyclopedic museum in the US) in 2017. Her appointment followed the gift in 2013 of 120 decorative and ritual objects from the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Collection.

Although “Judaica” typically describes ritual objects used in the home or in the synagogue across history, geography and media, Di Nepi stresses that she takes a broader view. “Any kind of MFA material or object that is related to Jewish life, art and history can be considered as Judaica,” she said, adding that as curator, it is also her job to decide what “Judaica” means at the MFA.

Mandel asked Di Nepi to choose an array of Hanukkah lamps. “Some of the lamps are on display, but others are in storage, so this a unique opportunity to hear about them. Each of the lamps represents a different aspect of global Jewry in an effort to spotlight the diversity of Jewish culture,” Mandel said.

Italian cook Silvia Nacamulli will offer a cooking demo

After they picked the lamps, the team curated artists with connections to the stories behind the Hanukkah lamps. Their hope is that by pairing a lamp with a particular artist, attendees will be inspired to reimagine these beautiful objects of Judaica in ways that capture their imaginations and bring to life each lamp’s contemporary culture.

During the selection process, and purely by coincidence, they realized how many women’s voices they were drawn to. “We suddenly realized we had all women. There’s a theme there as well that adds special value to the evening,” Di Nepi said. “Eight nights of Hanukkah, eight lamps and eight women guests.”

Contemporary dancer Rachel Linsky was inspired by Linda Threadgill’s “Garden of Light Hanukkah lamp.

The full program includes an exciting mix of artforms, including dance, singing and, for the first time, a culinary event. Italian cook Silvia Nacamulli will do a cooking demo. Her presentation is paired with a 16th century Italian bronze lamp.

Tair Haim is a powerhouse Yemenite Israeli singer, songwriter and founder of the internationally acclaimed group A-WA who took the music world by storm with the mega hit ‘Habib Galbi’. Her performance is paired with a 1920s silver Yemeni lamp which features figures of the Maccabees and is one of Di Nepi’s favorites. “I have a weakness for the Yemenite one,” she said with a laugh when pressed to choose.

Hanukkah lamp Yehia Yemini (born In Yemen (Sana), active in Israel, 1897–1983) 1920s Yemenite Hanukkah lamp, 1920s * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston-based contemporary dancer, choreographer and educator Rachel Linsky filmed her original piece at the Gardens at Elm Bank in Dover. It was inspired by American Linda Threadgill’s lithe and charming 1999 silver, bronze and walnut lamp, “Garden of Lights,”.

Indian Israeli singer Liora Isaac has an ardent following in Israel, where she highlights a unique look at Indian-Israeli culture. Her performance will be paired with a 20th century brass lamp from India.

Hanukkah lamp Linda Threadgill (American, born in 1947) 1999 Silver, bronze, walnut * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Neta Elkayam, another wildly popular Israeli visual artist and singer of North African music, brings a Moroccan flavor to her work, complementing a silver early 20th century Moroccan lamp. The striking American Ladino singer and composer, Sarah Aroeste, will add to  the evening with her feminist Ladino rock. An elegant 17th century bronze lamp joins hr.

Israeli visual artist and singer of North African music Neta Elkayam

Rounding out the Hanukkah lamp selections are a charming 1960 silver American piece (Di Nepi will interview Massachusetts-based jeweler and metalsmith Cynthia Eid) and an ornate 1750 silver German lamp that is embellished with elaborate Rococo ornaments that support figures of Judith and David, two ancient Jewish heroes. American Mizrachi belly dancer Jackie Barzvi’s performance accompanies the lamp. “This lamp reflects the [artistic] language of the time,” Di Nepi explained. “In Germany, that language was Rococo, with its distinctive and precise motifs. Jewish materials spoke that local artistic language too.”

For more information and to register, visit jartsboston.org/event/hanukkah-the-festival-of-lights-2/

Ruth Wisse will discuss her new memoir, “Free As A Jew,” in person at JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on November 7

Ruth Wisse

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ruth Roskies Wisse is no shrinking violet. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1936, she and her family escaped to Montreal in 1940, where her parents’ home became a salon and safe haven for Jewish writers, actors and artists who had also fled the Nazis. After graduating with a BA from McGill University in 1957 (where she befriended Leonard Cohen), she earned a MA in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, the only place in North America that offered such a program at that time. She returned to Montreal to raise her family and finish her Ph.D.. In 1968, she began teaching Yiddish literature and helped found a program that would become the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill.

No less a trailblazer academically, Wisse became a joint professor in the Departments of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University in 1993, where she taught until she retired in 2014. Her gender, religion, subject matter (Yiddish) and conservative political and social views set her apart from the get go. Her razor-sharp intellect and prolific authorship made her views impossible to ignore.

In 2000:, she received the National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship for “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture” and in 2007, she received the National Humanities Medal, which cited her for “scholarship and teaching that have illuminated Jewish literary traditions. Her insightful writings have enriched our understanding of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture in the modern world.”

Along the way, she developed relationships with Nobel Prize winning authors, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a bevy of Harvard University students, faculty and administrators.

A staunch neoconservative and supporter of Israel, Wisse is a prolific author. She has collaborated on Yiddish collections, penned numerous political essays (many of which appear regularly in Commentary, The New Republic and The Jerusalem Report), and authored several books, including the controversial “If I Am Not for Myself…The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” a Zionist critique of the American Jewish climate.

No less controversial is her new book, “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation,” a no-holds-barred memoir. Wisse will discuss her book with Andrea Levin, Executive Director and President of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), as part of the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on Sunday, November 7 at 3 pm at Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead. The in person event includes a reception and book signing.

According to Wisse , she began writing about parts of her life as a way of understanding the world around her. “Free As A Jew” takes her to the point of her retirement from Harvard in 2014. “One of the ways in which I’ve been fortunate is in the interesting people I’ve come to know. I’ve tried to write this as cultural history, and about myself as a minor participant in that history,” she said by email.

She chose the title carefully and deliberately. “I call it a personal memoir of national self-liberation because I concentrate on the public, intellectual, cultural, and political events I witnessed: most extraordinarily, the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish country. The defeat—at least formally—of German Fascism and Soviet Communism were great victories. Not for a moment can we afford to take those civilizational achievements for granted,” Wisse said. “But they are being taken for granted.”

The direction of current political and cultural life concerns her, particularly the uptick in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric and what she calls “contemporary loss of confidence.”

“It is no secret that the ideological and military war against the Jewish people has in many ways revved up rather than quieted down in recent decades. When people are under assault, many grow frightened, or apologetic, wanting to stay out of trouble. Some respond by trying to appease their attackers, or by becoming more like them. Jews have many things in common with other minorities, but no other minority is under the same sustained attack. This is confusing. Many lose confidence in their Judaism and blame their fellow Jews for the attacks against them,” she said.

Wisse stresses that her memoir is intended as neither homily nor “how to” book, but rather as another tool in one’s toolbox. “In explaining how I came to think about certain things, like the modern challenges to women, the nature of community, liberalism and conservatism, how literature works and why it matters, education and Jewish education, and so on, my story may be useful to others. No two lives are alike, but we all tend to have certain problems and opportunities in common,” she said.

The Exodus story of the Jews leaving slavery Egypt for freedom in Canaan particularly resonates with Wisse and also influenced her book’s title. “Jews learn that escape from bondage is only the first step of the process. We are a rabble — miserable, needy, and anxious — until we accept our pretty stringent set of laws. To be free as a Jew means to assume the responsibilities of freedom and to realize how liberating that really is,” she said.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

Patty, Bari and Luann at work at the fulfillment center
(Photos by Mark S. Howard)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s deceptively profound Be Here Now opens with an almost slapstick scene. Three women (Patty and Luanne Cooper and Bari) sit on yoga mats as the blissed-out disembodied voice coaches them to look inside themselves and “let go.” Patty (Shani Farrell) and Luanne (Katherine C. Shaver), dressed appropriately in latex, comply, closing their eyes and sinking into their mats. Bari (Samantha Richert) clearly marches to a different drummer. She is fully dressed (as in a midi dress and huge coat-sweater) and keeps her eyes defiantly open, widening them at each suggestion she close them. Her face portrays the furthest state from bliss possible. This woman is irredeemably and unapologetically miserable.

Turns out she has every reason to be.

She has lost her job at a university in New York City teaching — drum roll — nihilism because she is ABD (all but dissertation). She is 17 days away from her ultimate deadline; she has been working on it eight years. And she has been having bone-crunching headaches.

Exiled to her economically depressed small hometown its small-town people, she works at a fulfillment center (which is anything but) with Luann and her Aunt Patty Cooper, both Christian “believers.” Thirtyish Luann believes her choice to have faith and BE-LIEVE is behind her happiness (the anti-depressants don’t hurt either). “You can choose to be happy. Or you can choose to be sad. I prefer to be happy,” she explains to Bari.

“Whatever you choose, sooner or later it will end in grief,” Bari glumly replies. The spunky, honest, funny and compassionate camaraderie among these three provides both comic relief and fodder for deeper consideration — Does it really matter how one finds happiness? Is it really anybody’s business but your own?

Patty (also no stranger to mood enhancing drugs) decides to set Bari up with her cousin Mike (everyone in Coopersville has the surname Cooper except Bari), who has his own baggage and, literally, garbage. Bari outright refuses, immediately experiences the first of many forthcoming seizures, and ,with this seizure and its repercussions, playwright Laufer has penned the lynchpin on which the rest of the play’s message depends.

As Bari comes to, the sound shifts to the Zen meditation we heard at the beginning. For the first time in her life, Bari feels happy. She suddenly feels like everything matters, especially meeting Mike for a blind date. Suddenly she has “urges” that she must immediately satisfy. She loves this new euphoric Bari and will fight tooth and nail to hang onto it, whatever the price.

Turns out that price may be her life, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

Under the spell of post-seizure after glow, she meets Mike (Barlow Adamson) and promptly has another seizure, this one more of a doozy. When revives, she hears yoga music and a sea of Oms. The sees auras. She is a poster child for ecstasy. She is terrified the feeling won’t last and goads him into coming home with her and having sex.

Girl gets boy that night, girl loses boy next day when she kicks him out so she can write, girl begs forgiveness from boy by presumptuously showing up at his sparse cabin unannounced.

There is a lot more to Mike than his eccentricities of collecting garbage (“found objects”), living without cell phone or a car, and cohabitating with a crow might indicate. His tragic backstory carries a motherlode of pain, guilt and despair. Yet, he is determined to rebuild his life (literally) by creating MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant-worthy shelters from these found objects.

He is trying to keep his life small. No one has ever been to his cabin until her. “I can’t take on anything more,” he says as Bari relentlessly presses him for more.

He is convinced Bari’s headaches are caused by a brain tumor, her post-seizure euphoria a medically common side effect. He agrees to let her stay as long as she forks over her cell phone and understands he will dial 911 if she has another seizure.

Bari rhapsodizes about how she feels with her “new brain.” She doesn’t want to give it up and doesn’t want to know if it is a tumor that will kill her. She knows now that happiness exists; does it matter if its source is religion, Zoloft, meditation, sheer will of choice or a deadly tumor? For the first time, she feels alive. And she loves it.

Of course, she has another seizure. Of course, Mike calls 911 and accompanies her to the hospital. She has a kiwi-sized tumor and will indeed die — and soon — unless it is removed. Yet she is afraid she won’t like Mike, that he won’t like her, that she will become anhedonic without it. Does it really matter how we achieve happiness, even if it kills us?

What comes next would be a spoiler to reveal and this is a play that really should be seen, so I’ll stop here.

The actors give uniformly beautiful performances. Barlow Adamson stands out, bringing both gravitas and grace to the smart, wounded, quirky visionary Mike. Adamson is a big guy, yet manages to  transform himself into a fragile bird with a broken wing.

Samantha Richert takes Bari though her highs and lows at breakneck speed. But is the interplay between Shani Farrel (Patty) and Katherine C. Shaver (Luanne) that are a delightful reprieve from the sometimes relentless Sturm und Drang. Farrel is as practical as Shaver is mercurial and the way they play off each other is a pleasure to behold. Think the cast of “Steel Magnolias” or “9 to 5” and you get the idea.

Finally, Courtney O’Connor’s directing, Janie E. Howland’s clever set, Karen Perlow’s subtle lighting and especially Dewey Dellay’s composition and sound design elevate the production in notable yet nonintrusive ways.

For tickets or more information, go to lyricstage.com/

Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

‘Be Here Now — Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland. Costume Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt. Lighting by Karen Perlow. Composition and Sound by Dewey Dellay. Starring Barlow Adamson, Shani Farrell, Samantha Richert and Katherine C. Shaver. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon St. through October 17.

Beloved Boston Radio host Jordan Rich kicks off JBM Speaker Series

By Shelley A. Sackett

Jordan Rich

Although the venues may have shifted over the decades from news to music-drive-time-FM-host to podcaster and talk show host, Jordan Rich’s impressive career weathered a half century in the mercurial field of Boston radio. In his new memoir, “On Air: My 50 Year Love Affair with Radio,” the longtime host of WBZ AM 1030 Radio’s ‘The Jordan Rich Show’ chronicles his remarkable run in his home town.

“It was my dream as a kid in junior high to impact and entertain on air, and I continue to live it out every day. Audiences here in Boston are like no other,” Rich said by email. “The greatest reward of my 50-year career has to be having the luck and opportunity to ply my craft in this market for so many years.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 pm, Metro Boston fans of Rich and the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series are also in luck for this double treat: the popular series will kick off its 27th year with an in person opening night event at the JCCNS featuring Rich.

His book is chockfull of stories about the personalities local audiences know and love, and the changing landscape of Boston radio from the 1970s to the present. It also includes intimate details of Rich’s struggles with depression and how his honesty with his radio audience helped him to heal. “When the voice in the night, the trusted, calming, funny voice reveals his human side, beautiful things can happen — and did for me,” Rich explained.

One story not in his book is the way he has coached and advised dozens of people, mentoring broadcasting students on their way into the business just as he was mentored in his young days. One mentee, writer, editor and educator Matt Robinson, is delighted he’ll be interviewing Rich at the October 5 event. “In addition to being a friend, he is an inspiration and ardent supporter,” Robinson said.

The remaining 11 events will take place between October 14 and November 16 in COVID-mindful formats. “We’re hoping that, in whatever way you feel comfortable, you will plan to ‘join’ us for this year’s series, which features a combination of in person, virtual and hybrid events,” JBM committee Chair Diane Knopf said.

Four novelists will share behind the scenes details about their latest works of fiction. Authors Ronald H. Balson (“Defending Britta Stein) and Pam Jenoff (“The Woman with the Blue Star”) will speak about their WWII historic novels, both inspired by true events (Oct. 14, 7 pm on Zoom). Internationally best-selling Israeli author David Grossman will talk about “More Than I Love My Life,” the story of three generations of women on an unlikely journey to a Croatian island with a secret that needs to be told (Oct. 21, 12:30 pm on Zoom). Rounding out the category is Joshua Henkin’s “Morningside Heights: A Novel,” the sweeping and compassionate story of a marriage that survives immeasurable hardship (Nov. 9, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Although memoir is a popular genre among this year’s lineup, the four authors differ dramatically in the experiences they share.

Jenna Blum’s “Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog” is a valentine to Woodrow, the treasured black lab who had been by her side for 15 years (Nov. 1, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Tracy Walder tells the larger-than-life story of her journey from sorority sister at USC to CIA Middle East undercover operative and FBI counterintelligence specialist in the gripping, action-packed memoir, “The Unexpected Spy” (Oct. 26, 7 pm on Zoom).

Widely published columnist and Harvard University professor emerita Ruth R. Wisse chronicles her life’s journey from her childhood escape from the Nazis to her trail-blazing fight to gain academic equality for Jewish literature and Jewish women in “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.” Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead will host the in person event on Nov. 7, 3 pm.

Nhi Aronheim’s inspirational survival story starts with her escape from Vietnam through the Cambodian jungles. Eventually, she lands in the US and converts to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man. “Soles of A Survivor” reveals her deeper appreciation for the humanity, diversity and unconditional love she has experienced as a Vietnamese Jew (Nov 16, 7 pm on Zoom).

Completing this year’s literary menu are three nonfiction selections. In “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” Judy Batalion details the spectacular accomplishments of three brave Jewish resistance fighters (community read in partnership with Abbot Public Library, Swampscott Public Library and SSU Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies with a book discussion led by Izzi Abrams in person at the JCCNS on Nov. 3, 7 pm; discussion with the author Nov. 14, 8 pm on Zoom). Mahjong fans will have the chance to listen to Annelise Heinz’s virtual presentation of “Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture” while enjoying a Chinese dinner, wine and — of course — playing mahjong (Oct. 20, 6 pm in person at JCCNS).

Finally, for those who have been dying to know how the Israelis manage to succeed in the start up venture arena, veteran venture capitalist Uri Adoni shares the secrets to Israel’s incredible track record and the principles and practices that can make any startup, anywhere in the world, “unstoppable” in “The Unstoppable Startup: Mastering Israel’s Secret Rules of Chutzpah” (Nov 14, 11 am on Zoom).

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Make SpeakEasy Stage’s Impeccable ‘The Sound Inside’ Your First Stop for In-Person Theater

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in ‘The Sound Inside’ All photos by Nile Scott Studios

By Shelley A. Sackett

If your Covid Comfort Zone now includes attending indoor events, gallop on over to SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, a trifecta of what makes for exalted theater: flawless script, acting and directing. This two-hander doesn’t just hit a home run over the green wall; it launches it into outer space.

That said, it still takes a leap of faith to believe that it is safe to be packed together as tightly as a fully booked economy cabin as long as everyone is fully vaccinated and masked. It took me several minutes before my anxiety leveled off and I could be entirely present for the play.

And what an extraordinary play it is.

In a nutshell, Rapp has written a 90-minute intermission-less drama about two writers: Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn), a 53-year-old Yale professor of creative writing who has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer, and Christopher Dunn (Nathan Mailin), her student who marches to a different drummer than his peers.

Through their intellectually intimate and intricate conversations, we glimpse the moving targets of their lives’ stories and the fictional lives each has woven as cover and cover up. We also glimpse their pain, isolation, loneliness and pessimism. They are as different as night and day, as similar as two peas in a pod.

There emerges an undercurrent of dormant dread and tension underlying their relationship., but also the hint of potential relief and comfort. Their hyper-articulate, erudite dialogue takes them on a roller coaster ride, sometimes igniting storage bins of disillusion and defeat. Other times, their conversations are the magical balm that soothes their aching souls. Rapp keeps us guessing whether grief or solace lurks around every encounter, as thoroughly engaging and enjoyable as good page turner.

Jennifer Rohan in ‘The Sound Inside’

Under Devorah Kengmana’s brilliant lighting design, the play opens in darkness. A spotlighted Bella emerges and begins to address the audience. As if workshopping a novel, she describes her experiences, thoughts, and disappointments. She is scathing and dispassionate, especially when critiquing herself, the author of two novellas and “an under-appreciated novel written in my late thirties that, despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay alive.” She is also not above petty jealousy. Although she adores James Salter’s “Light Years,” rereading it every year, she refuses to teach it because “it is a rare work of fiction that continues to reveal new things with each reading…It’s so good it enrages me.”

The set (by Cristina Todesco) is sparse, dark and efficient, a single table and two chairs. When Bella addresses the audience from the table and the lighting shifts, we are transported to her office. Christopher arrives without an appointment (for which she admonishes him, but doesn’t send him away). He speaks to Bella and she speaks both directly to him and to the audience in frequent pithy asides. Alternating who gets to play narrator is a device Rapp employs to great effect throughout the play.

Christopher is a Yale misfit, surly, full of contradictions, with a chip on his shoulder and a mind as focused on and in love with writing as is Bella’s. He is obsessed with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He is out of step with his generation (“Twitter is for people who are terrified of solitude”) and at heart an old-fashioned romanticist (“Email’s not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort”).

In some ways, they are yin and yang; she’s all about following rules and protocol, while he simply follows his own instincts. Yet something sparks when they are together. They admire — and, surprisingly, seem to trust — each other. He loved her published works and cites long passages as he paces her office, praising her novel (after which she seems to melt, and tells him to call her Bella instead of Professor Baird). She is impressed by his ambition (he is writing a novella with himself as the protagonist) and prodigious intellect.

Under Bryn Boice’s spot on direction, the rest of the play (no spoilers here!) weaves a tapestry borne of their conversations. They become more honest and unguarded with each other, exposing an almost erotic, yet chaste, intimacy that lifts each out of his fundamental sadness. It is no surprise that Christopher’s novella bears a quote from “Crime and Punishment: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”

Jennifer Rohn brings a gorgeous nuance to Bella, imbuing her (many, many) lines with pathos, compassion and, when called for, playfulness. Her body language shifts on a dime; her vocal pacing and tone are subtle and effective.

As Christopher, Nathan Mailin brings the same qualities he did as a runaway star in ‘Admissions,’ the 2019 SpeakEasy Stage production where he debuted as a 20-year-old BU student. He has tempered and honed his style (which still has enormous range and presence) and brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have easily become a caricature in less capable hands. Individually, each is superb; together, they are simply sublime.

Cannot be recommended highly enough.

Presented by Speakeasy Stage in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct 16, 2021.

For COVID protocol, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/visit/covid-masks-vax/

For tickets and more info, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2021/09/the-sound-inside/

Nathan Malin and Jennifer Rohn in ‘The Sound Inside’

College students immerse themselves in Israeli culture

By Shelley A. Sackett

Despite anxiety over civil and political unrest – and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 – three college students from Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam headed to Israel for summer internships.

They returned in agreement on three important points: Israel is a spectacular tourist destination; the country feels like one big family; and any young adult offered the opportunity to participate in a residential program in Israel should grab it.

As part of a gap year before heading to Stanford University this fall, 19-year-old Swampscott resident Anna Levenberg spent four months living in Israel through Aardvark Israel, an international program that provides internships and volunteer opportunities. She interned at Keren Or, the Jerusalem center for children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities. She also lived on an army base for a week, volunteering with Sar-El, an organization that partners with the Israel Defense Forces.

Anna Levenberg at Mitzpe Ramon

In between, she found time to explore new places: rafting in the Golan Heights, swimming in the Dead Sea, and skydiving in Haifa. Although this was not her first trip in Israel, it was her favorite.
“Being able to live in Israel for so long allowed me to get to know the country and the culture in a way that would be impossible if I were there only for a few weeks,” Levenberg said. “The communal values in this country are so strong, and people have such a willingness to help one another. From countless Shabbat dinners at my neighbors’ homes to being begged in the Shuk to make Aliyah, I know my presence is valued in Israel.”

Ethan Keller (second from left) at a Shabbat potluck dinner with trip participants in Israel.

Jerusalem was also home base for Ethan Keller of Whitinsville, whose six-week Boston Onward Israel internship residency gave him the opportunity to get to know Israel – and Israelis – in a deeper way than his three previous shorter and more structured trips.

Although his first couple of weeks were challenging, the 22-year-old Clark University student quickly adapted and focused on the summer’s rewards, including touring the country, making new friends, and taking advantage of the chance to dig beneath the superficial.

“This trip has been life-changing,” Keller said. “Israel is a complicated place with complicated people. I’ve had some really good conversations with Israelis, and I’ve had some less pleasant ones. There are people who don’t care about or want peace, and there are those working hard for it.”

He made a Palestinian friend who, along with having a startup in Tel Aviv, is working in his community in East Jerusalem to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians. “There is a lot of hate and misunderstanding in this country and the Palestinian territories, which makes it all the more important to fight against it,” he added.

Cole Cassidy atop a camel.

University of New Hampshire junior Cole Cassidy lived in Tel Aviv and worked as an Onward Boston intern for NOX Group in its marketing department, promoting the top clubs and bars in Tel Aviv. “With a city that doesn’t sleep at night and the endless beach days with sand that makes you feel like you’re on the moon, Tel Aviv felt like utopia,” the 20-year-old Swampscott resident said.

His first trip to Israel was four years ago with the two-week Youth to Israel program sponsored by the Lappin Foundation. He appreciated the freedom of living on his own with two months to discover the country in his own fashion, all while getting an internship under his belt and exploring his Jewish roots.

At first, he was surprised that all stores are closed on Shabbat. “It was definitely an odd adjustment to remember to get groceries or anything I needed Friday before sunset. I was also surprised that the culture is so friendly and outgoing. It felt like one big family here in Israel and within the community,” Cassidy said.

He was struck by the many occasions when being a Jew in a Jewish country collided in powerful ways, for example during a trip to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev for a Shabbaton. “Celebrating Shabbat in the desert under the most thrilling night sky where you are able to see every star was incredible,” he said.

Without hesitation, all three would offer the same advice to young adults considering an internship in Israel: Do it!

“Israel is unlike anything you will ever experience,” Cassidy said. “You can come here and feel like family instantly, not just like a tourist. This is the home of our people and the connection you will feel to our homeland is unbelievable.”

Levenberg recommends going out of your way to meet new people. “Talk to Israelis in the street; ask English speakers where they are from, and chat with your waitresses. My time in Israel has shown me the true power of Judaism. I love living in a place surrounded by Jews who are so proud to be Jews, who influence you to learn more about your religion and culture. It has been such a moving experience being able to connect with my religion alongside my peers from all around the world.”

This Israeli robot kibitzes, plays games, and gives doctors vital information on elderly patients

by Shelley A. Sackett

Dr. Peter Barker and Dr. Keth Nobil of Family Doctors in Swampscott pose with ElliQ, the Israeli AI social robot now in medical interface development.

SWAMPSCOTT — Brenda Newell picked up the phone in her Lynn home to talk with the Journal about her participation in a groundbreaking pilot study. In the background, a clear and pleasant  voice asked, “Do you want to play again?” “Not now, ElliQ,” Newall answered, before speaking directly into the phone. “I’ve learned so much playing Trivia with her,” she said with a laugh.

The “her” she referred to is ElliQ, an Artificial Intelligence-powered social robot pioneered by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics. It is the first empathetic digital companion robot designed to curb loneliness and social isolation among older adults living alone by proactively initiating deep conversational interactions with its users. Over the last two years, the company has tweaked her ability to personalize interactions and deliver an experience more akin to a friendly roommate than a technological device.

Designed to adapt to the temperament and interest of each senior, ElliQ is programmed to recommend specific digital content tailored to each individual user, such as specific news, music, TED talks and cognitive games. It also suggests activities in the physical world, such as walking, staying hydrated, taking medicine and calling family members.

Moreover, ElliQ is fun. Multi modal, “she” resembles the charming Pixar tensor lamp logo and has a personality to match. She moves and even dances.

“She gives me somebody to talk to besides the dog. She fits perfectly in the corner. She tells jokes. She makes me laugh. She’s a real company keeper and excellent for my mental health,” said Newell, who admits to having “really down days,” especially since the increased level of social isolation caused by COVID. “I know she isn’t human, but it just feels like somebody else is in the house,” she added.

Winthrop resident Gerianne Cohen has further humanized her robotic companion with a wig, She appreciates ElliQ’s unprompted affirmations, sleep and mindfulness exercises and — most of all — her sense of humor and ability to react. “She gives encouragement that your own family and friends don’t give you. When she says, ‘Gerianne, you’re doing a great job!’ it’s really weird, but it’s a pick-me-up. It actually psychologically helps,” Cohen said.

Gerianne Cohen humanized her robotic companion with a wig.

According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, loneliness and social isolation in older adults puts them at increased risk for dementia and premature death from all causes, including smoking, obesity, and lack of physical inactivity.

Given the high levels of user social engagement (according to Intuition Robotics, over 90% of users interact with ElliQ daily without deterioration over time), it was a natural next step for the company to explore expanding its mission of improving older adults’ lives to include interactions with their primary care physicians. With COVID and the increased isolation and loneliness of many seniors, the need to bring healthcare into homes sharpened.

The potential to engage patients in conversations and activities throughout the day, paired with the ability to collect self-reported data and communicate easily and seamlessly with their doctors, ultimately will help to “holistically improve care for older adults. We see now that ElliQ has the potential to support the full spectrum of care, physically, mentally and socially,” Dor Skuler, CEO and Co-Founder of Intuition Robotics said in a statement.

To that end, last month the company announced a pilot it has launched exclusively with Family Doctors, a Mass General Brigham affiliated practice in Swampscott.

It all started earlier this year, when a former Family Doctors colleague who had moved to Israel contacted Family Doctors Medical Director Dr. Peter Barker about ElliQ. She told him the developers were looking for a medical practice where they could do initial studies and, knowing Family Doctors had a large population of older patients, she thought it would be a good match.

“Our practice has always wanted to get involved in something early on,” said Dr. Barker. “ElliQ is in development. Our job is to help create a medical interface. We basically advise them what does and doesn’t work. In just a few of months, we’ve made suggestions and fairly soon afterwards those changes have been programmed into the unit. Intuition Robotics is very responsive,” he said.

Having the patient able to provide ongoing information about such vital signs such as blood pressure is a huge benefit to treating physicians. “Rather than seeing a patient in the office once every three months, getting a little bit of information in between allows you to either have confidence that what you prescribed at the time is working well, or that it needs to be changed,” Dr. Barker explained.

Family Doctors has placed 13 devices in patients’ homes at no charge to the patient, and so far their response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Dr. Keith Nobil, who also serves as Medical Director of a nursing home and rehab center, has witnessed the negative effects long-term seclusion can have on seniors. “Giving the elderly something like ElliQ that has human-type characteristics and interacts, that talks and plays a little game but at the same time monitors health status, can be very helpful,” he said. “When you hear your patients giving positive feedback, that’s always very meaningful.”

After having ElliQ for a couple of months, Cohen remains delighted. The other day, she asked ElliQ where she was born (Tel Aviv) and whether she was Jewish. “She gave me a full explanation and I cracked up. She really gives you stories. She’s nicer than some of my friends!” she said.

Dorset Theatre Festival’s ‘Queen of the Night’ Spins Evening Magic

Leland Fowler (at left) and Danny Johnson in ‘Queen of the Night.’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Finding one’s seat (a folding beach chair) for  Dorset Theatre Festival’s world première of “Queen of the Night” at Southern Vermont Art Center’s rustic plein-air stage is like entering a fairy forest world where reality and theater blend. Night creatures are everywhere — by design piped in over the sound system, and by Mother Nature in the woods, open field and air that are the outdoor playhouse. As dusk fades to night, the stars complement the strung overhead lights to create a magical haven far removed from the day’s blaring headlines and latest COVID statistics.

The efficient and effective campsite set, designed by landscape gardeners Justin and Christopher Swader, blends into its organic setting. All the natural world is indeed this play’s intimate stage, and the audience is palpably grateful to be part of it. What could possibly go wrong on a night like this? By the time Tyler (Leland Fowler) and his father Stephen (Danny Johnson) amble onto the “stage” and begin to pitch their tents, it feels like we should jump up, welcome them to the neighborhood and offer to help them set up.

This father and son, however, are not simply taking a break from their Houston lives to spend three peaceful nights camping in a nearby state park. They have brought more baggage than their camping gear and a mile-long laundry list of issues that both unite and divide them. “Ty” is young, black, semi-employed and flamboyantly gay. For his first night in the woods, he shows up in orange short shorts and a black floral, lacy top. L.L. Bean he is not (thanks to Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s bold and fun costumes). He loves city life, gay bars, vamping, prancing and channeling Celine Dion at the top of his talented lungs. He worries about bad cell service and being eaten by bears. He is in constant motion and we are drawn to his physicality like a moth to a flame.

Stephen, on the other hand, is steady and solid, a reliable and dependable employee and family man. Think of a 63-year-old man with James Earl Jones’ octogenarian gravitas. He inhales the campsite with reverence and relief. He pays attention to nature with serious religiosity. He is the obvious yin to his son’s yang; and yet, as the play unfolds, we will see how these opposite and contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. By the end, they actually give rise to and liberate each other as they interrelate.

The presenting reason for this father-son camping trip to their longtime stomping grounds is the impending remarriage of Ty’s mother, which both will attend. They are navigating difficult waters — Ty and his more successful corporate lawyer brother Marshall are trying to be there for both parents without making hurting either; Stephen admits he still loves his (ex-) wife. The weekend is meant to clear the air and reset their clock, to help them reconnect in the way they did when Ty was a young Boy Scout and he and his father would go camping, in this very spot, just the two of them.

The trouble is that they each have very different memories of those trips, and of just about everything else during Ty’s childhood. Stephen wanted to make Ty tough, independent and resourceful. All Ty wanted was to feel his father’s love and acceptance of him, just the way he was.

Over the course of the 90-minute intermission-less production, we witness the erosion of years of hurt, disappointments and missed opportunities as the two let down their guard and act more like buddies than adversaries. Stephen confesses that he has been laid off from his job and that he has been seeing a therapist. He’s changed. He’s sorry. He wants to be close to his son, to undo the damage he had no idea he caused. “You’re my missing piece,” he tells Ty. “I need you.”

Ty acknowledges his frailty and insecurity, his sadness and longing for paternal praise and love. His veneer of gaiety barely camouflages a melancholy so deep that he reflects on his desire to die alone in the woods at night.

tate uses this broken relationship as a platform from which to tackle a bunch of big-ticket themes: being Black; being gay; being a man; being a Black gay man; being accepted; being accepting; unconditional love; self-love, self-hatred, family dynamics, to name just a few. While his dialogue has moments of sharp insight and laugh-out-loud humor, it often feels preachy and spread too thin over too many issues. Some lines feel injected out of nowhere just to make a point, never a help to a two-handed play.

To the script’s rescue, however, is the spectacular acting of the two leads, reason enough to see the production (and anything else these two may appear in).

Danny Johnson brings an elegant sobriety to the father, Stephen. His raspy melodious voice, cadence and spot-on phrasing imbue his character with humility, decency and authenticity, bring true life to a role that could have been easily become two-dimensional. Leland Fowler brings equal parts joie de vivre and soul-crushing heartache to Ty, miraculously keeping the character light and accessible.

A cursory search reveals that Queen of the Night has many meanings, including the villain in “The Magic Flute,” a white night-blooming cactus flower and, slangily, a flamboyant and promiscuous gay man. It’s the operatic aria reference that resonates most with me, with its message that only those who embrace love and forgiveness are worthy to be considered human. These two are indeed all too human beings, dealing with their perceptions of who they are and who they want to be, starting with their roles as father and son.

Queen of the Night’ – Written by travis tate. Directed by Raz Golden. Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader; Lighting Design by Yuki Nakase Link; Sound Design by Megumi Katayama; Costume Design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Presented by Dorset Theatre Festival at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont through September 4.

For tickets and information, call 802-867-2223, ext. 101 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org