There’s a saying among actors: “There’s no such thing as a perfect show.” Anyone lucky enough to see Theater J’s production of The Wanderers will have to politely disagree: top to bottom, this is as fine and perfect a piece of theater I’ve seen in many a year.
The script by Anna Ziegler (whose play Boy is onstage at Keegan Theatre) is a revelation, touching on family truths, marriage, and personal histories. At its center are Esther and Schmuli, two young Orthodox Jews embarking upon their arranged marriage and traditionally proscribed lives.
Counterpoint to them are a modern couple, novelist Abe and his wife Sophie; their marriage might be more familiar to modern audiences, but the parallels to Esther and Schmuli are inescapable. Add to that a fifth player- famed actress Julia (Tessa Klein), who upends Abe’s world in a way that is both shattering and familiar.
The denouement encompassing all five people, when it comes, is completely out of the blue- yet it’s a circle coming around, unseen by either characters or audience, yet earned. I can’t tell you more than that – I wouldn’t want to.
The Wanderers closes March 15, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Ziegler’s phenomenal script is but one reason this is a perfect production. Yet there’s more: director Amber McGinnis’s casting is pitch perfect. As Esther, Dina Thomas is wondrous- funny, astute, staunchly traditional at first and then it’s as if her eyes open to a wider world and she can’t close them again, no matter the cost. Her husband Schmuli, as tenderly played by Jamie Smithson, is very nearly a tragic figure- you can practically smell his fear of the unknown- yet he’s able to see joy in snowflakes. There is love with these two people, and you find yourself desperately hoping they will find a way back to each other. Both actors could have been tempted to overplay their parts, were it not so finely directed.
As Abe, the accomplished novelist, Alexander Strain is nearly the narrator of the show- he often talks directly to the audience- but as haltingly portrayed by Strain, for all his accomplishments Abe is just as afraid as Schmuli. Abe’s flirtation with Julia (Tessa Klein) gives Klein some of the more intriguing questions, and the two play their never-met, online conversations as two lonely people who don’t really know what they want. Abe’s wife Sophie (the beautiful Kathyrn Tkel), seems, at first, to be just another neurotic wife of a famous novelist, one who wants to write herself but is either unable to or unwilling to compete with her established husband. But that isn’t all she is- she’s a fighter, and Tkel gives her such backbone, grace, and flaws such that we can understand her actions, misguided as they may at first seem.
All this perfection doesn’t just happen- a script this good needs a director to tune us in to the important bits, and Theater J has found such a person. Amber McGinnis is steadily making a name for herself as a director in our area: catch her work soon, for she has the talent to make it in a larger environment. She understands these people, and makes us understand them- and their actions- as well.
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Mention must be made of the fine and beautiful set by Andrew R Conen- at first glance, it’s quite simple- a circular set, with a raised area, two sets of stairs at either end, one single piece of furniture, and Edison bulbs arcing upwards in a swirl that echos the circle of the stage. It’s hauntingly beautiful just to look at, but it also gives the actors innumerable areas to turn into bedrooms, a nursery, a snowy exterior, and the neverwhere of an Internet communication.
Lighting by Laura J Eckelman and Sound Design by Matthew Nielson are subtle, but so seamless; that simple set would look flat and one-dimensional without the talent of the two designers.
Costume designer Heather Lockard takes modern, casual clothing and gives us little hints of the characters wearing them: Sophie’s voluminous sweater hugs her as she wishes her husband would; Julia’s shoes have metallic heels that suggest she is slightly above the everyday world; Schmuli wears traditional Orthodox clothing, but his long coat is just a little too tight on him, perhaps echoing his yearning to break free- though it never becomes unbuttoned, not once. Such tiny details. So thoroughly thought out.
For those driving, parking in this residential neighborhood is a definite issue. Theater J points to 2 nearby garages.
Best way to guarantee you don’t arrive late may be to take an Uber or Lyft.
However you manage it, I hope you will go see this show. It’s just magnificent: and I don’t use that word indiscriminately.
The Wanderers by Anna Ziegler . Director: Amber McGinnis . Cast: Katherine Tkel as Sophie; Dina Thomas as Esther; Jamie Smithson as Schmuli; Alexander Strain as Abe; Tessa Klein as Julia . Set Design: Andrew R Cohen . Costume Design: Heather Lockard . Lighting Design: Laura J Eckelman . Sound Design: Matthew Nielson . Casting Director: Jenna Duncan . Dialect Coach: Nancy Krebs . Stage Manager: Anthony O Bullock . Asst Stage Managers: Aziza Joi Kelly, Rebecca Talisman . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.