Through Feb. 2
Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center
1529 16th St., N.W.
It’s spring of 1939, and everything in Leonard and Evelyn Kirsch’s world seems safe and secure — cocooned almost. But all isn’t what it appears in Alix Sobler’s play “Sheltered,” now at Theater J.
When we meet Leonard and Evelyn (David Schlumpf and Erin Weaver, respectively) in the living room of their studiously tasteful Providence, R.I., home, they’re dressed for dinner and expecting guests. The meal is being prepared by the housekeeper and the children are out of earshot. Though ostensibly a serene scene, the couple is tense as they nervously strategize how best to pitch a prickly proposal to their guests — old but no longer close friends Marty and Roberta Bloom, played by Alexander Strain and Kimberly Gilbert.
While most Americans have heard the horrific reports of anti-Semitism coming out of Nazi-occupied Austria, they’ve reacted differently. Many maintain an isolationist or wait and see stance, but the Kirsches, Jews themselves, are deeply concerned and opt to do something. After numerous visits to Washington, Leonard has managed to secure visas for 40 Jewish children to gain entry into the U.S., provided he find them homes stateside. At this dinner, the Kirsches intend to ask the Blooms to foster a child.
The gregarious guests arrive fresh from a performance of “Our Town.” Marty loved it. As he explains the familiarity of Thornton Wilder’s then-modern, yet nostalgic take on American life, Roberta rolls her eyes, noting there is nothing about her Jewish husband’s background that remotely reflects anything in the playwright’s small-town New England story.
Just a generation off the shtetl, Marty Bloom (formerly Moshe Blumenthal) relishes the American dream. The Blooms are less refined than Len, a Brown educated physician, and his well-educated, elegantly dressed wife Evelyn, but they’re all committed to establishing themselves in the mainstream of American life. Neither couple is religious.
But certainly, the couples differ with regard to activism. Marty won’t be associated with the funny ways of the Old County. He thinks Europe should solve its own problems and takes comfort in believing that things have a way of working themselves out.
Gilbert gives a revelatory performance as Roberta, a dissatisfied woman stuck in an abusive marriage whose biggest concerned are money and her fast teenage daughter’s reputation. She’s typically overwhelmed by the prospect of risk and is deeply hurt that Evelyn has neglected their friendship until now.
Act two takes place a month later in Vienna. The action is confined to a well-appointed hotel suite where the Kirsches are headquartered while Leonard haggles with the gestapo and Evelyn selects the fortunate 40 from a stack of files, a more harrowing task than she’d anticipated.
The rooms are quiet, but outside an ominous storm is building, literally and figuratively, as the playwright repeatedly reminds us. But not to worry, out director Adam Immerwahr’s exact staging and some fine performances make up for most of the script’s weaknesses.
That evening, a visitor unexpectedly arrives. Hani Mueller (McLean Fletcher), a Jewish Austrian woman, has come to announce that she’s removed her young son from the pool of prospective refugees. Evelyn, who has specifically selected the boy to come to America, sends her husband out for a packet of aspirin and a heated exchange surrounding the future and maternal responsibility ensues between the two women.
Beneath Frau Mueller’s neat appearance and robotic demeanor there lies sheer panic. Yet, she goes through the motions of life despite the uncertainty of the situation and the absurdity considering her family has lived in Vienna for centuries.
Sobler’s play is in part a response to the Syrian refugee crisis. This coupled with the horrific reality of caged children separated from their parents on our Mexican border, makes “Sheltered” unfortunately timely.