‘Days’ and amused
New play deals with death, divorce, dysfunction in loving Jewish family
In the world premiere of Sharyn Rothstein’s All the Days at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, running through May 29, stereotypes morph into full human beings as stinging humor is tempered by love. Dealing with divorce, illness, and death, the members of the dysfunctional yet deeply loving Jewish family at the center of the work find their way to moments of mutual understanding, finally coming together at the bar mitzva of their son and grandson.
Emily Mann, artistic director and resident playwright at McCarter Theatre and director of All the Days, called it “a Jewish play” laced with distinctly American-Jewish humor.
At the same time, Mann told NJJN, at a recent performance she was sitting next to an Irish woman who said about the character of the Jewish mother in the production, “Oh my God, that is my mother!”
“What I love about Sharyn Rothstein is that she writes with such incredible specificity that it could be universal,” Mann said. “She writes about a Jewish family but it could be any race or ethnicity.”
As the play opens, we meet Jewish mother Ruth Zweigman (Caroline Aaron) and daughter Miranda Blaser (Stephanie Jannsen) par excellence in a very dated Long Island kitchen. Through quick-paced dialogue, we learn that Ruth suffers from diabetes; the family is mourning the recent death of their son, brother, and nephew David; and Miranda has recently found solace in Jesus.
Criticizing pretty much everything about Miranda — including the tasteless, healthy food she has brought to help her diabetic mother lose weight — Ruth wavers between the hurtful remarks that reflect her own anger and grief and a deep understanding of her daughter’s predicament.
When Miranda’s “self-actualization” brings her to church, Ruth’s initial response is sit-com worthy: “Your son’s getting bar-mitzva’d, but you go to church. You’re trying to kill me.”
But when Miranda tells Ruth that she finds church “soothing,” Ruth expresses her dismay with a deeper Jewish chord. “They’ve been killing our people for 2,000 years — and you found it soothing?”
This conversation reflects a generational shift in identity. For Ruth, Judaism is simply a part of who she is. But Miranda’s grief pushes her to look elsewhere. She tells her mother, “I need something. And for whatever reason, I couldn’t find it in Judaism. Judaism’s all about questions and debate and…and I needed a blanket. I needed something warm and holy and much, much bigger than me, and I found it in Jesus.”
Ruth eventually understands that it’s not Christianity, but Miranda’s unwillingness to be who she is that is the real issue. Criticizing “this life you’ve built, where nothing gets in and nothing gets out,” Ruth tells her daughter: “So you can go to church. You can tell yourself there’s some higher power that will make it all okay. But until you stop being so scared to live your life, nothing’s going to change.”
Ruth also poignantly shares with Miranda what she has learned from holding onto a child too tightly. “The pressure on that little boy to be the only person you love, the only person who matters, it’s too much.… You’re gonna lose him. Just like I lost you.”
In any family, Mann suggested, “The deep love can also come at great cost. They are complicated relationships, deeply devoted relationships, and yet can be as painful as they can be nourishing.”
“Even in a dysfunctional family you need each other, and when it comes down to it, that’s what you have at the end of the day.”
The play is also about forgiveness, Mann said. “Nobody is perfect, and we all have our deep flaws. In order to forgive them, we have to accept them…and open our hearts.”
The play uses humor to investigate sibling rivalry, divorce, betrayal, and of course love, with each character using it in a different way, Mann said. “Sometimes it is used very aggressively…, sometimes to defuse a situation, sometimes to tell the truth and get a laugh but with a barb underneath; sometimes it is used lovingly.
“This family uses humor both as a weapon and a blanket.”
For Mann, who is Jewish, this play has great resonance — “I recognized everyone in it and laughed and cried at the same time, just by reading it.” And with regard to Sharyn Rothstein, Mann said, “I hope the Jewish community will come out and support the play — she’s going to be a somebody and she’s ours.”