By Victoria Weisfeld
McCarter Theatre Centre’s Berlind Theater in Princeton through May 29, this world premiere of Sharyn Rothstein’s new family “dramedy” delighted the opening night audience. Three generations have their issues: divorced parents in their sixties, uptight divorced daughter, and a grandson approaching his bar mitzvah. The central conflict, though, is mother-daughter. Author Rothstein says, “Mothers and daughters, if they can stand it, should see the play together.”
Caroline Aaron plays mother Ruth Zweigman, overweight and overbearing, afflicted with diabetes and its consequences. To manage her fears and resentments, not to mention her grief over the death of her only son, she lashes out. Early on, I found her constant comebacks and jibes simply unpleasant, but Ruth warms as the play unfolds.
Stephanie Janssen plays daughter Miranda. She doesn’t have the temperament for the constant sparring and fled Long Island for the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. A social worker and newly converted Christian, Miranda fixes other people’s problems, and is frustrated by a mother who doesn’t want to be fixed.
Delmore Zweigman, Ruth’s ex-husband, played by Ron Orbach, tries to rekindle a relationship with his prickly ex-wife, drawing on her nostalgia and, perhaps, thinking ahead to what his “liver disease” will bring. Ruth sets him straight, saying, “You can’t live in the past and the future at the same time.”
The action begins in Ruth’s kitchen as she recuperates from eye surgery, and Miranda convinces her to come to Philadelphia “until the bar mitzvah.” Miranda’s living room becomes the setting for most of the play’s numerous short scenes in which the characters laugh together, yell, and reveal their secrets.
Rothstein holds a degree in public health as well as her MFA, and wove into this play significant public health concerns—problems of diabetes, diet, and stress-related illness among them.
It takes an unerring sense of timing to keep a two and a half hour production moving without a single check-your-watch moment, which McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann accomplishes superbly as director. From the beginning, Mann says, “I laughed out loud as I read [Rothstein’s] fiercely funny characters, exquisitely wrought, struggling with dilemmas at once heartbreaking and hilarious.”
Leslie Ayvazian plays Ruth’s sister Monica, absolutely able to give as good as she gets and a long-time realist where Delmore is concerned. Justin Hagan plays Miranda’s boyfriend Stew only now meeting her parents and soon realizing why he’s been spared heretofore. Yet Stew recognizes the mother’s essential loneliness and suggests she meet a friend of his—an herbalist, whom Ruth styles “a medical man,” who soon evolves into “a doctor, a surgeon.” This friend, Baptiste Wright, played by Raphael Nash Thompson, provides a welcome layer of calm and understanding to Ruth, like a smoothing, soothing layer of butter over the bumpy and fractured muffin underneath. Matthew Kuenne is the bar mitzvah boy.
Production credits to Daniel Ostling (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Jeff Croiter (lighting), Mark Bennett (music and sound design), and T. Charles Erickson (cast photos used here).
For tickets, call McCarter Theatre’s box office (609)258-2787 or visit the box office online.