Actress/writer Stacie Chaiken has mined the dark labyrinth of her Russian Jewish family’s nearly 100-year history in America to solve the mystery behind the veil of silence that prevented any mention of Louie, her great grandfather, the patriarch that brought her relatives out of Russia to England and eventually to the U.S. Chaiken and director Clare Carey have not balanced or paced the work to its best advantage and the denouement is interminable. Yet, at its best moments, Chaiken’s amalgamation of her own dysfunctional life and the deeply tragic schism that exorcised Louie from the family makes for fascinating storytelling.
Chaiken demonstrates a facile, colorful ability to recall the history of her extended family and all their various dysfunctions. As she relates a lengthy list of one-on-one feuds between various family members, she concludes each one with a somber, ”They never spoke (to each other) again.”
Along the way, she methodically explains her own unsettled life, due in part to her father’s professional wanderlust that took her to 14 schools around the U.S., before her family finally settled in the San Gabriel Valley community of Covina. Having tried various colleges, a failed marriage to a Catholic (which included her own conversion and baptism), and a still-struggling career as an actress, Chaiken determined that her sense of rootlessness was ”…connected to what I consider the ‘wound’ of immigration.”
As Chaiken relates, she became fixated on learning about her great-grandfather, Louie, but was fiercely deterred by her 90-plus-year-old grandfather Irving, who would cut off any discussion with an angry ”You don’t wanna know.”
The highlights of Chaiken’s odyssey include the recounting of her relentless search through immigration files in New York, wherein she discovered the exact immigration information recorded upon her family’s arrival in 1902, and her 1996 videotaped conversation with Irving, who finally revealed the painful secrets he had buried for most of his life. The information he gives her — the family’s poverty-stricken life on the Lower East Side, the separation Irving suffered from his brother and two sisters, and the final determination Irving makes about his own father, Louie — is devastatingly dramatic stuff.
In essence, the work ends when Chaiken comes to terms with the information she has received. Yet, the actress and director Carey are determined to extend the work into a lengthy, semimystical ritual of atonement and forgiveness that dilutes the impact of her grandfather’s emotionally powerful videotaped presence. And her final dressing up as the long-lost Louis is almost comical in its inappropriateness.
Chaiken utilizes the theater’s tiny, near-bare stage area to interesting effect, aided immensely by the evocative lights and sounds of Dan Mendigo and David B. Marling, respectively.