“What could be more serious than being stuck in a studio apartment…with your family?!”
Nothing brings out the best (or worst) in us than our families. They can support us in our times of need. They can tear us down limb from limb. Family traditions act as pillars of strength and identity, or conversely, as shackles and burdens that weigh on our lives.
In Joshua Harmon’s new play Bad Jews, running through March 14th at The BLUEBARN Theatre, a grandfather’s death and a priceless family heirloom start a verbal cage match between two cousins over family, faith, and legacy.
The show’s director, BLUEBARN Artistic Director Susan Clement-Toberer, discovered the play when the text was included in the April 2014 issue of the magazine American Theatre.
“I ran across the title and was intrigued,” she said. “I started to read it and didn’t put it down until I was finished. By the time I finished reading it, I knew we had to do it for our 26th season. It was unique. The voice of the playwright told such a wonderfully layered story.”
The story revolves around a young woman named Daphna, a ‘Real Jew’ studying at Vassar and looking forward to studying Judaism in Israel with her boyfriend. Daphna has her heart set on procuring her late grandfather’s Chai necklace, a family heirloom that he somehow kept with him through the Holocaust and, to Daphna, the most important symbol of her family’s Jewish faith and tradition.
Enter Liam, the eldest of the grandchildren and a self-described ‘Bad Jew’, who misses their grandfather’s funeral while on vacation in Aspen with his shiksa girlfriend Melody. Liam reveals that he has the necklace for his own reasons. Tempers flare as both Liam and Daphna turn to complete character assassination in the hopes of attaining the necklace and crushing the other’s sense of self-righteousness. Caught up in the middle of all this is Liam’s girlfriend Melody, a cute blonde who works for a non-profit, and his brother Jonah, a college student trying his best to stay out of the volatile situation.
Clement-Toberer said each character brings a unique voice to a story that is both brutal and hilarious.
“The play is about family,” she said. “Family dynamics, family beliefs, everything that has to do with faith and legacy. It really deals with the dynamics that are created with people who have such strong feelings about their faith and even stronger feelings about being right. I believe that people of any faith, whether you are Jewish or Catholic or Methodist or everything in between, will connect with the emotional through lines of the play.”
With a show that balances intense drama with ferocious comedy, Clement-Toberer knew the key to the show would be finding the play’s rhythms and movements, much like a musical composition.
“We are all working to find the rhythms in the voice of this play. It’s a symphony of different instruments that all have to come together just right. First we find each heartbeat, then connect them together to find the outrageous rhythm of the play.”
To help find that rhythm, she enlisted the help of four young actors. One actor (Jonathan Purcell) is a veteran of the BLUEBARN stage while the other three (Megan Friend, Sydney Readman, and Jon Roberson) are new to Omaha theatre.
“When we held auditions, we were looking for very specific characters,” Clement-Toberer said. She pointed to the descriptions Joshua Harmon gave for each character:
Daphna – Thick, intense, curly, frizzy, long brown hair. Hair that clogs a drain after one shower. Hair you find on pillows and in corners of the room and in your refrigerator six months after the head from which it grew last visited. Hair that could not be straightened even if you had four hours and three hairdressers double-fisting blow driers. Hair that screams: Jew.
Liam – Wire-rim glasses. U of Chicago Asian studies Ph.D. student. Former Fulbright scholar in Japan. Has as much of a sense of humor as an overdue library book.
Jonah – Sometime-UVM sophomore. Less lanky than his brother. Less brainy. More brawn. More heart.
Melody – Short, stick-straight blonde hair. Which she wears with a barrette. To be extra cute. Mousy. She looks like someone who would have been abducted when she was nine but returned to her parents unharmed.
“I love his descriptions,” she said. “He’s very clear in who he wants to be cast in this role. When we went into casting, we had all these fantastic people turn out, then we had people like Megan walk in, who has that kind of hair. I just thought ‘Please, please, let her be able to act!’ and she just nailed it.”
For Clement-Toberer, working with so many new faces has been invigorating.
“John, Cindy, and Megan are treading the BLUEBARN boards for the first time. Each one of them have brought their own, unique voice to creating their characters. It’s been blast to work these people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working with people I’ve worked with before because you already have a relationship, a rhythm, and your dialogue is shortened and streamlined because of it. But it’s been really fun in this show to work with people who have been freshly trained and also have never worked with me. We’ve run the gamut of finding our rehearsal rhythms with each other.”
After weeks of rehearsal and fine tuning, Clement-Toberer said the story is ready to blow Omaha audiences away as the BLUEBARN gets closer and closer to closing the doors on its old space before moving to its new home on 10th and Pacific Street.
“I’m thrilled with this cast, she said. “I’m sure that our cast is as good if not better than the many productions going on across the country. They really are able to tell this story the way it should be told.”
‘Bad Jews’ by Joshua Harmon runs Thursday-Sunday until March 14th at the BLUEBARN Theatre on 614 S. 11th Street. For more information on the show, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.