It’s a Family Affair: “Days of Atonement” Is an Emotional Roller Coaster

 

DOA_Ramona Alexander, Dana Stern and Jackie Davis

(L-R): Ramona Alexander,as Fanny, Dana Stern, as Amira, and Jackie Davis, as Malka,​ and Dana Stern (behind as Amira) reunite at last in “Days of Atonement.” (Courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Sta​ge)​

 

By Shelley A. Sackett, Journal Correspondent

 

“Days of Atonement”, Mizrachi (Arab-Jewish) Israeli playwright Hanna Azoulay Hasfari’s lean, emotionally-charged drama, explores the thorny and complex landscape of family dynamics against the backdrop of preparing for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when only after woman has sought forgiveness from her fellow woman is she permitted to seek forgiveness from God.

 

In this case, the women who will atone and repent are three half-Moroccan, half-Israeli sisters who return to their childhood home in the Israeli city of Netivot — established by Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants in the 1950s —after their youngest sister Amira (Dana Stern) summons them to help locate their mother, who has disappeared. Estranged for decades, their reconnection will be fraught with friction.

 

The four Ohana sisters are a pallette of religious, ethnic and generational identities. The only Sabra, Amira is in her early 20s and attends film school in Tel Aviv. She sashays about in the stifling summer heat in spandex underwear, to the shock of older sister Evelyn, 44, (Adrianne Krstansky), who in turn is ultra-Orthodox from her dress to her life-threatening ninth pregnancy.

 

Fanny (Ramona Lisa Alexander), late 30s, is an assimilated, feisty, successful realtor whose teenage pregnancy got her thrown out of the house. The oldest, Malka (Jackie Davis) is a miserable busybody homemaker who was forced into an arranged marriage after Fanny shamed the family name.

 

Amira suffers panic attacks and is in danger of flunking out of school. Evelyn’s identity is so wrapped up in motherhood that she refuses the abortion that may save her life. Fanny tries to fill the hole left by the son she gave up for adoption by buying a Vietnamese baby and Malka obsesses over her husband’s imagined infidelities, mirroring their mother’s toxic behavior towards their father.

 

DOA_Ramona Alexander

​Jackie Davis, ​left ​as Malka, and Dana Stern, as Amira. share a quiet, calm moment. (Courtesy Paul Marotta/Israeli Sta​ge)

 

If it’s hard to believe they grew up under the same roof with the same parents, that is precisely the point Azoulay Hasfari is trying to make. Driving it home with a reunion triggered by a search for the mother each experienced through different multi-cultural lenses makes for brilliant theater.

 

Over the course of the day, the four sisters take turns laying bare their souls. “It’s Yom Kippur. No time for games,” Malka says without a hint of irony. As they inventory their transgressions and expose the hidden pain they silently cope with, the sisters ride an emotional roller coaster, lurching from hostility to love, from shame to humor.

 

We hear four sides to every childhood event, all (except Amira’s) also stories of immigrants and the hardships they faced as outsiders. Ultimately, though, politics are irrelevant to the sisters’ universal story of family and the female perspective.

 

The production is theater at its finest. Guy Ben-Aharon’s direction is minimalist; he wisely lets Azoulay Hasfari’s crisp script carry the load. Even props are token: all except three benches and a camcorder are mimed. The acting across the board is stellar, each sister unique, consistent and believable.

 

Highly recommended.

 

“Days of Atonement” is at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street through June 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit israelistage.com/

‘Casa Valentina’ Is More Than Eye Candy

Above: Eddie Shields as Gloria, Thomas Derrah as Valentina and Robert Saoud as Bessie access their inner McGuire Sisters./ALL PHOTOS GLENN PERRY

By Shelley A. Sackett

Shelleysackett.com

With the gloom of daylight savings time and shorter, darker days looming around the bend, we should say a double “Hosanna” for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s six-week run of “Casa Valentina”, Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-nominated play that is about much  more than cross-dressing and visual gags.

“Casa Valentina” is a flawless production, from its across-the-board inspired acting and directing, to its funny and thought-provoking script. Before the house is even dark, the ukulele music and whimsical setting clue us that we are in for an enjoyable ride.

The play was inspired by a mysterious true subculture of heterosexual transvestite men who sought sanctuary in the Catskills during the 1960’s at the real-life hidden refuge, “Casa Susanna”. There, they could literally let their hair down, wearing wigs, heels, makeup and jewelry. A treasure trove of photographs discovered by a furniture dealer in a Manhattan flea market and published in a 2005 book showed the secretive world of men lounging around, playing cards and socializing — all while dressed as women.

A group of producers approached Fierstein, one of America’s first openly gay major celebrities, about writing a play based on the retreat. The author and Tony-award winning actor and playwright of “Kinky Boots”, “La Cage aux Folles” and “Torch Song Trilogy” agreed.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d'Eon.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d’Eon.

Janie Howland’s pleasing, rambling set is the 1960s Chevalier d’Eon, a homey Catskills resort of bungalows named after a French transvestite spy. The Chevalier caters to a group of “regulars”, married city-men with straight lives and straight jobs, who convene in the tranquility of the retreat to dress and behave like women. These gatherings are vacations in more ways than one; “Being a boy is my day job,” laments one. The masculine pronoun is banished from conversation, the booze flows freely and the Oscar Wilde quotes are darts that never miss the bull’s eye.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

The wife and husband proprietors, Rita and George (also known as Valentina), are equally devoted to providing a safe place where transvestites have the freedom to explore their feminine sides and enjoy the camaraderie and fun of their soul sisters. Rita, played by Kerry A. Dowling with warmth, substance and a lot of heart, is a wig stylist who met George when he brought his sad, straggly wig into her shop for repair. She loves the “girls” and is almost saintly in her support for her husband. [Thomas Derrah, as Valentina/George, is superb].

Jonathan, a masculine, shy and bookish thirty-something, is a first time guest at the Chevalier; in fact, it is his first time ever dressing as a woman in public. Rita takes him under her maternal wing and his transformation from nervous, cautious Jonathan to ebullient and prom-ready Miranda is heartwarming. It is also a hoot, with wigs, falsies and industrial strength foundations for face and fanny.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda as Will McGarrahan (Charlotte) looks on.

Each guest is unique and yet similar. Bessie, played with sass and verve by Robert Saoud, only appears in drag. She is the Oscar Wilde-spewing quick-witted Ethel Merman wannabe. As Albert, he is a decorated war veteran who has three kids and a wife able to ignore him.

Gloria, played by the breathtakingly beautiful Eddie Shields, is the most sexually charged and self-confident of the bunch, slinking around and miraculously not breaking an ankle in those stilettos. Terry, a frumpy maiden aunt type, couldn’t be more opposite.

But it is Timothy Crowe as Amy, the alter ego of The Judge, a distinguished and politically powerful man, who personifies the inner conflict suffered by those who must live secret lives. Crowe masterfully lets the Judge’s underlying sadness and fear poke its head above the surface of Amy’s wit and conviviality.

Most of the girls have known each other for decades, and their affectionate and easy chatter and jibes are fun and funny. The lip sync to the McGuire Sisters in a makeshift cabaret reminiscent of talent night at summer camp is worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not worry-free in Paradise.

Valentina has been summoned to the local postal inspector to answer for some suspicious mail, which could have dire consequences for all of the girls, but especially for George. The Chevalier is facing equally life-threatening financial problems. Only Rita is aware of these troubles.

Enter into this olio of eccentrics the Californian Charlotte, a Chanel-clad button-down, buttoned-up disciplinarian reminiscent of George C. Scott as Patton. Charlotte publishes a magazine and oversees an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers, as long as they’re the “right sort” of cross-dressers; that is, as long as they are not homosexuals. Valentina has naively pinned her hope on securing a loan form Charlotte, but the price she demands proves too steep and threatens to tear the Chevalier apart in a far nastier, bloodier battle than would ever take place in bankruptcy court.

Charlotte’s silver lining is that she is the spark that spurs serious discussion about serious issues. In this age of gender diversity, “Transparent” and the newest reality show, “Caitlyn Jenner”, how one identifies ones self matters both more and less. The lines between gender and identity, sexuality and gender identification, and what is “acceptable” and what is not have never been more blurred. With the explosion in labels comes an explosion in opportunities to marginalize and be marginalized. Perhaps the most powerful message “Casa Valentina” offers is that the discriminated against can themselves be the heartless discriminators.

“Casa Valentina” is a romp and a good time, but it much more than that. It shines an unblinking spotlight on the underbelly in all of us, and dares us to ask ourselves a simple question: What is “normal”?

Recommend is too tame a word for “Casa Valentina”. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.

“Casa Valentina” will run until November 28, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

For tickets or more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.