Producer Kathy Levin had nurtured the play over many years and through several drafts. The play has now arrived with a new title –“The Shawl”– for a very brief run at Playhouse 91, where the Jewish Repertory Theater is in residence. Although Ruehl is gone, Wiest remains, giving an electrifying performance, one that builds to an unforgettable second-act monologue describing the story’s central, horrific memory.
In the transformation from “Blue Light”– whose title suggests some mystery — to the more prosaic “The Shawl,” the play itself has become more prosaic. What was a kind of extended tone poem with a powerful theme has been reduced to something more obvious and leaden. It will undoubtedly meet a critical savaging, and the commercial prospects at this point are nil.
TX:A Jewish Repertory Theater presentation, in association with Kathy Levin and David Brown, of a play in two acts by Cynthia Ozick. Directed by Sidney Lumet. It will not have been for want of effort. The play begins in New York at the end of the ’70s. Haunted by the murder of her infant daughter during her internment at Auschwitz, Rosa (Wiest) has a nervous breakdown in her junk shop. In her mind, the baby Magda has grown up into a doctor who can be conjured at will.
Rosa’s niece, Stella (Wendy Makkena), hasn’t had an easy time of it, either; she exudes loneliness and need, and sexual yearning. When Rosa is moved to an old folks’ home in Miami Beach, Stella is visited by Garner Globalis (Boyd Gaines), a stranger on a mission. The action of the play centers on Globalis’ seduction of both niece and aunt — physically, in the first place; psychologically, in the second. But his singular goal is sinister, a fact that is much more obvious, much earlier on in “The Shawl” than it was in “Blue Light.”
Globalis is a smooth-talking Nazi apologist who preys on the likes of Stella and Rosa, twisting their fading and sometimes tangled memories into admissions of doubt that can then be entered as “testimony” that the Final Solution was a fiction dreamed up by Zionists.
Although Ozick was clearly a newcomer to the particular vocabulary of drama, her play is full of haunting images — not the least of which is the one that gave the first version of the play its name. Rosa recalled “the mysterious blue light of Warsaw,” and when she talked with the dead Magda, she would be drenched in that aura.
Such fantastic flights have no place in “The Shawl,” where the action has become much more linear, not to say literal. The play now comes across as stolid storytelling in an older playwriting tradition and one that will not hold audiences today. Lumet’s staging, too, reflects an older Broadway tradition that only serves, now, to highlight the play’s shortcomings. Tony Walton’s grim modular sets, darkly lit by Kirk Bookman, are murky rather than suggestive.
Ozick and Lumet have tried to make Globalis more seductive than the character originated by D.B. Sweeney, but Gaines is unable to make this Devil irresistible or even very appealing. And while Makkena comes through in Stella’s final scene with Globalis — when she realizes, as she says, that “I’m the same to you as I was to them”– the actress lacks Ruehl’s sinuousness and her ability to inhabit a role with heartbreaking authority, the perfect foil for Wiest. Bob Dishy is wonderful as a retired buttonmaker and Rosa’s would-be suitor; Salem Ludwig is less so as a resident of the home.
Dina Spybey plays the home’s dopey blonde (read: shiksa) receptionist, comic relief in a work that might have benefited by the presence of one sympathetic non-Jew.
But casting isn’t the problem with “The Shawl.” Clearly a work of conscience, it is nevertheless a play that has gotten further and further away from its maker. Despite its riveting central performance, “The Shawl” has become a blunt instrument, something the theater decries.