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From left to right: Miriam Smith, Arne MacPherson.
Photo credit: Chronic Creative


By Michelle Palansky, February 1,2011

The Father, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s offering for StrindbergFest 2011, is a dramatic and intense piece of theatre put opn by a local cast who give some fine performances.

StrindbergFest 2011 is Manitoba Theatre Centre’s 11th annual Master Playwright Festival. Every year, the festival celebrates a world-class playwright with performances and readings of his/her work. This year, MTC showcases August Strindberg. He was a Swedish writer who lived from 1849 -1912, and he is known for his emotionally intense plays and his misogynistic attitudes.

Adapted by Toronto playwright Julie Teppermen, the show resets August Strindberg’s 1887 play in a modern context, with Jewish instead of Christian themes. The play stays very close to the original concept. Teppermen updates the original language, which is far too stiff for modern audiences. The Internet, laptops, mobile phones - they are all there to modernize the feel of the piece. However, the essential struggles of the play remain the same. What is a father? Can a father ever be certain his child is truly his own? Who should control the fate of a child, the mother or the father?

Miriam Smith is masterful in the role of Leah/Laura Freedman, the mother who turns to Judaism after the death of her twin son Josh. She is simmering  with frustration. Her performance is strong, subtle, and very calculated as she extricates herself from an unhappy marriage, and drives her husband insane. As a Joseph Wolinsky graduate, I can  vouch for her pronunciation of the Shabbat prayers. As someone who is often disappointed by Jewish actors who mispronounce the most basic Hebrew words, I was thrilled to hear Smith’s excellent accent.

The role of the husband, Adam Freedman, is played by Arne MacPherson. He plays the role of the free thinking, controlling, tortured husband admirably well. The husband’s descent into madness could have been showy in a ham-fisted actor’s hands, but MacPherson finds the reality of the role and the humanity in the father.

Graham Ashmore plays Laura’s brother, Benjamin and Jennifer Lyon plays Julia, Laura’s therapist friend. They deliver solid performances; their timing is excellent and they have great rapport with the other actors. When the Catholic-Italian Julia comes to stay with the Freedmans, Adam has her turn on the lights because it is already Shabbat.

“I know, while you’re here you can be my Shabbos goy - you could make a killing in New York turning things on and off.”
The roles of Benjamin and Laura are like Shabbos goys - they are there to mechanically move things along in the plot - they turn things on and they turn things off.

The pacing of the show was impressive. The actors kept the show moving along quickly and with a great deal of assurance. Credit goes to Mariam Bernstein, the director, for good timing and effective stage pictures.

The family portrait, set centre stage above the couch, sometimes cycled through different moments of the Freedman family, but during the bulk of the play remained frozen on a singular family picture. It is the Freedman family of the happy past - Josh is alive and grinning next to his twin Becca, Adam and Laura are together, and Laura is still Laura, not Leah the grieving mother who turns to traditionalism to salve her wounds. The family picture does not change, but as the audience learns more about this wounded family, the viewing of the picture changes. The portrait becomes sadder, darker, creepier; a constant reminder of what the family was and will never be again - a strong, silent, fifth character in the play.

The Father is more intense than hilarious but it does have its moments. Adam jokes about the things he has given up since his wife Laura has become religious.

“You wanna talk sacrifice? I even gave up turkey and Havarti sandwiches - at home.”

The allusion to the “kosher-at-home-Jew” got a pretty big laugh from the audience, but the belly laughs were reserved for the Shabbat meal. Adam brings home a bottle of Manischewitz wine.

“You’re in for a really awful treat.”

The Father  is a play that is strongly dramatic. It packs a lot of punch in 90 minutes of theatre. The audience, made up of younger StrindbergFest devotees and the older Berney Theatre crowd, was treated to a show that did not disappoint.

The Father runs from Jan. 27-Feb. 6, 2011.

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