nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
October 14, 2011
Jericho, the ever-helpful Wikipedia explains, “is known in Judeo-Christian tradition as the place of the Israelites’ return from bondage in Egypt.” Jericho is where the fabled walls came tumbling down: “The city was completely destroyed,” notes Wikipedia’s entry on the Battle of Jericho, “and every man, woman, and child in it was killed.” Jericho is a hamlet in Nassau County, New York. Jericho by Jack Canfora is a smart, startling, and soul-stirring play that—not surprisingly—wrestles with issues of exile and return, apocalypse and peace, devastation and domesticity.
It’s about 9/11.
It’s also funny, sharp, bright, sad, and very thought provoking.
“There are some things it should be impossible to recover from,” says protagonist Beth near the play’s start. She tells us—actually she tells her therapist, Dr. Kim, who appears to her, and thus to us, as her late husband Alec who was lost in 9/11, leaving her lost after 9/11—that she is still numb: her “life coated in Lucite like a museum exhibit not to be touched.”
But Beth has met someone. Four years after being widowed, four years of only intermittently being able to connect before drifting anew into pain and bewilderment, Beth has met Ethan. A nice Jewish boy. With a nice Jewish mother in Jericho. Beth accepts Ethan’s invitation to a family Thanksgiving in the suburbs. She’ll bring Alec along; he is her perennial baggage.
Ethan has no particular baggage, but he has a brother, Josh. Josh is a 9/11 survivor. Since those walls came tumbling down, Josh has spoken of little but his fervent desire to return to Israel. Not that he was ever particularly religious before, and not that this is in any way appealing or desirable to his wife Jessica. 9/11 has made Josh a different person, with different values and a different perspective. He, like Beth, has been upended, drifting too and unable to connect meaningfully. At least not here and not with the people who love—loved—him.
Canfora sets all this up in Act I, and then puts his six characters together to mix it up in Act II around the dining room table. Layers are peeled back, dots are connected, holes are filled in.
But with 9/11, as with any unreasoning tragedy, just understanding more doesn’t make the understanding better.
I’m afraid I’ve made this sound a sad play. And it’s not. It crackles with humor, wit, and sarcasm. The writing is smart; I would love to read this play to better savor its intricacy and intelligence. Ethan describes his family as a “kind of emotional pyramid scheme”; and familiar, funny conflicts of mother/son, brother/brother, mother-in-law/daughter-in-law, husband/wife are slyly presented. The pain and bewilderment wouldn’t register were in not for the easy normality Canfora presents. For example, there is a very warm scene in Act I between Jessica and Josh, while they evade a call from Mother and talk of domestic things, that points up the bond of trust and friendship that exists between the two. Which of course makes the drifting apart all the more poignant.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Corey Tazmania as Beth evinces more than a little of the quirky, dissociative style of Mary-Louise Parker, which is quite in keeping with the complicated, conflicted character. Jim Shankman’s Josh never loses our sympathy, despite his character’s flaws, missteps, and foibles. And Carol Todd’s Jessica, as the betrayed, embittered wife who has been widowed by the event every bit as much as has Beth, lets forth a howl of pain and rage and despair in Act II that brought the house down for me. Andrew Rein gives us a warm and funny Ethan. Matthew Stephen Huffman is an immensely likeable ghost, particularly when Beth sees Alec, but is actually interacting with someone else: Huffman evokes both characters in one—a neat trick indeed. Rachel, the matriarch, portrayed by Kathleen Goldpaugh, could be a more poignant, understandable character if played less on the surface. She is self-absorbed, yes, and her connection to the shattering lives around her is once removed. But she is a mother, and that vicarious maternal pain should come through more keenly.
Canfora’s play, is—as always at New Jersey Rep—exceedingly well served by both the director, Evan Bergman, and the design team of Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, Patricia Doherty, and John O’Brien. In particular, Jessica Parks has established a perfect set. We walk in to the theatre and are confronted with a mish-mash of chairs, tables, rocks, shoes, desks, objects in a disarrayed stack occupying almost half the stage. It’s the rubble of 9/11 of course, always there, always visible, never coherent. The metaphor is further developed by the fact that it is from this heap that the actors pull the props they need for each scene. So smart, so elegant.
In October 2001, an acquaintance of mine showed up at back-to-school night without his spouse. When I remarked on this, he explained that she had been at the Pentagon on 9/11. She wasn’t killed, she wasn’t injured. But a few days later, she left him.
That’s the sort of 9/11 story that Jericho tells. That’s the sort of story that surrounds us every day in everyday people up against big, scary, incomprehensible events. And it’s because that pretty much sums up life in general that we need to see plays like this. They help us not understand, but maybe appreciate that we’re all just muddling through best as we can.