The Invasion of Skokie by Steven Peterson has its North Shore premiere at the Mayer Kaplan JCC of the Jewish Community Center of Chicago and plays through June 23, 2013. Could there be a more appropriate venue? Recently there was a T. V. documentary, the” Nazis in Skokie” (http://video.wttw.com/video/2328967366/) leading many to think, “I just saw that”. The play, however, is a different take on the story. It is a wonderfully acted, powerful and poignant story of a family dealing with a cultural shift with the march as a backdrop. The play was appreciated with a standing ovation.
To me Steven Peterson’s skill at getting into the guts of the issues faced by the Jewish family living in Skokie was remarkable. Peterson may have had a special a unique perspective, at once broad, intimate and objective. He says that, “I grew up in Wilmette which is right next door to Skokie, so the Skokie march is an event I have always been interested in. My father had a business in Skokie as a dentist. His fellow dentists in his building were Jewish men and all of them, including my non-Jewish dad, were incensed by the Nazi threat to come to Skokie. I was in college during those years but boy did I get an earful from my dad. When I thought up the interfaith main story line of the play, I thought giving it the 1978 background in Skokie would greatly intensify the dramatic action.”
This story of the Kaplan family includes: father, Morry Kaplan (Neal Grofman), mother, Sylvia Kaplan (Justine Serino), daughter, Debbie Kaplan (Sarah Hecht), Debbie’s boy friend, Charlie Lindstrom (Josh Nordmark) and Morry’s friend from childhood, Howie Green (Michael Denini). The family lives in a nice suburban home in Skokie. Sylvia sells real estate and Morry owns a furniture store. With the threat of the Nazi march, Morry and other neighbors meet often to determine how to respond to this threat. Guns?
What the family doesn’t see coming is the invasion from within in the form of “Women’s Lib” and interfaith marriage-assimilation. From today’s perspective it is hard to remember how it was then but this play accurately captures the spirit of the time and the intensity of the family’s emotions.
Charlie was the one level head in the group and I wondered if there was a bit of Steven Peterson in him and was told that, “Although Charlie, like all the characters, is purely fictional, there probably is a bit of young me in him. I give him my own ethnic background as a Swedish-American. We're both kind of quiet and fade into the wallpaper when we're around a loud, boisterous family like the Kaplans in the play. But we're drawn to them. One way we're different, though, is that I come from a large, loving family, and Charlie, we come to understand, has no real family of his own. So for Charlie, the Kaplans are like the family he never had, and Morry is a kind of surrogate father. That makes Morry's rejection of him pretty hard for Charlie to bear. “
This production came together convincingly and powerfully. All of the acting was superb. Michael Denini's humorous role was a welcome break in some heavy-duty arguments. The play’s director Rachel Edwards Harvith commented, “The heart of the play is the relationship between Morry and his daughter, Debbie. Both are grappling with the idea of what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.…I’m focusing on the complex dynamic between a father and daughter who love each other dearly, but are struggling to be understood and respected. It is a discussion that is as important in Jewish families today as it was in 1978.”
The play was developed at and had its initial run at Chicago Dramatists in 2010 and among the rave reviews was a three-star review from Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune. Artistic Director of ShPIeL-Performing Identity, David Chack, saw the 2010 production and approached award-winning playwright Steven Peterson to consider doing it in Skokie. Mr. Chack said, “I think what Steve is doing is right up ShPIeL’s alley, by creating intercultural theatre coming from the history of the Skokie community. The play is a drama but it is also humorous and bittersweet, telling the poignant story of the family’s desire and struggle to pass down their heritage and beliefs. In other words it is about the future! As a result of this event the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie was built.”
Others to be credited are:: Rachael Claxton (scenic design), Kristin L. Schoenback (costume design & Props), Scott Pillsbury (Lighting Design) and Heath Hays (Sound Design).
For me, it was a thrill to see Mayer Kaplan JCC of the Jewish Community Center of Chicago in use again. As one member of the audience said, “I remember the wonderful plays I saw here during the ten years when it produced Jewish themed plays”. For those individuals who lived through those days and the people who did not this insightful play accomplishes the goal of ShPIel-Performing Identity, the intersection of identity, culture and performance. There is a great study guide available showing the actual legal battles related to the march and many suggestions.
Performance schedule: Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through June 23. Preview tickets are $25. Tickets to The Invasion of Skokie are $28 and are currently on sale online at shpieltheatre.com or 800.838.3006. Student tickets are $10 to all performances, based on availability. Senior tickets are $20. Half-priced tickets are sold, one hour before curtain at box office, based on availability. Group Tickets for parties of 10 or more receive a discounted rate and are available by calling 847.814.8206. Free post-performance discussions are available Thursdays and selected additional performances. Go to http://shpieltheatre.com/ for complete post-performance discussions and the guest leaders schedule.