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/

Gloucester Stage Company Hits It Out of the Park with “Out of Sterno”

Gloucester Stage Company is on a roll this summer. On the heels of its stunning “Sweet and Sad,” the North Shore venue offers up “Out of Sterno,” a dazzling production about female empowerment that is impossible not to like. This is one you will not want to miss.

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play features Dotty, a 23-year-old who has spent the last seven years of marriage sequestered in her apartment, occupying her days in ways that would make Pee Wee Herman feel right at home. Dotty’s “playhouse” includes toys, gadgets and puppet characters (although her appliances and furniture don’t talk, which is too bad since Dotty believes everything she is told, and even a chair would have better advice to offer than her mother’s).

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Amanda Collins as Dotty replays the first time she met her husband.

She has a crafts table where she constructs kindergarten art projects based on domesticity and a VCR where she watches re-enactments of her first meeting with Hamel, her perfect husband who has forbidden her to leave the apartment or answer the phone. The rest of her day is spent doing laundry and preparing the same dinner for Hamel — a smiley-faced hamburger. Although this is Sterno, not Puppetland, Dotty and Pee Wee are two peas in an infantile pod, their exaggerated cheer at times bordering on hysteria.

Dotty’s hermetic world is unsealed the day she receives a mysterious phone call and finds a nude girlie picture in Hamel’s grease monkey overalls. Her ordered world is suddenly topsy-turvey. She decides to disobey Hamel and track down the truth.

Once she leaves her apartment, our modern-day Dorothy discovers she is not in Kansas anymore. “Life was so much simpler when I never left the apartment,” she rues.

Her yellow brick road leads her first to Zena (a force to be reckoned with as played by Jennifer Ellis), the she-devil beautician who gives Dotty a primer in what womanhood can look like. The textbook is “Beautiful or Bust” magazine and the uniform includes false boobs, a wig and stilettos guaranteed to lead to debilitating foot problems. It also includes tutelage in Zena’s tried-and-true method to make it as a woman in a man’s world: steal another woman’s husband.
By way of illustration, Zena tells Dotty she has sunk her razor-sharp claws into potential husband number six. Before Dotty realizes that it is her own Hamel whom Zena is prattling on and on about snatching, she too falls under Zena’s foul-mouthed spell, finding womanly self-worth and identity by wearing Zena’s animal print jumpsuits and scrubbing her salon’s toilets with a toothbrush.

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Amanda Collins (Dotty) finds female fulfillment scrubbing Zena’s toilets with a toothbrush.

Dotty meets many characters no less colorful than Conky, Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne while on her quest for the meaning of womanhood. Richard Snee plays each of these cameo roles with relish and panache. These include a cabbie, a professor, other beauty shop clients, and Dotty’s new “bus buddies” — a militant feminist, a pregnant Southern lady and a geeky salesman.

Each offers her a manifesto, a code of ethics and a dress code. Like the blind men feeling the elephant in the Indian parable, each has his or her narrow, subjective perspective based on a single experience that fails to account for other possible truths or for a totality of truth.

Photo_16_8754Little by little, Dotty starts to realize that, while each of these guides can help her learn something about herself, only she holds the key that can unlock the mystery of her authentic self.

The extraordinary Amanda Collins as Dotty is reason enough to see the show. She effortlessly brings to the role an openness of curiosity and naïvité (think the un-raunchy elements of Lena Dunham); a slapstick wacky physicality (think Lucille Ball) and an exceptionally expressive face (think pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan). Her delivery is flawless and she radiates an inner light that draws the audience’s attention like a moth to a flame.

Paula Plum’s direction is full of surprises, such as props falling from the ceiling, and jaw-dropping brilliance, such as the staging of the final scene. The music has the breeziness of “The Pink Panther” and “Mad Men” and the set designs make creative use of overhead projectors, billowing curtains and backlit shadows.

“Out of Sterno” is particularly relevant in the wake of such “news” as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover that shows her authentic female self. As Plum notes in the playbill, “I found it intriguing that Jenner displayed herself through the lens of Beauty Culture: corseted, provocative and heavily made-up. The transformation of this former Olympic athlete to femme fatale poses the question: what makes a ‘real woman’? Is it the sum of our exterior parts?”

Sounds like Jenner should make a trip to Gloucester; Dotty could teach her a thing or two.

Pictured at top: Jennifer Ellis (as Zena), Richard Snee (as beauty shop patron) and Amanda Collins (as Dotty)

“Out of Sterno” runs through July 18 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.