With a few days left of Passover, a holiday commemorating the exodus of Jews from Egypt and to freedom from slavery, it seems like a perfect time for a play dealing with another episode involving tragic Jewish history to be presented in San Diego. The North Coast Repertory Theatre’s world premiere story, Mandate Memories, features issues regarding anti-Semitism, violence and making amends with others. It also reflects upon the time period during which the British Mandate for Palestine existed.
Set in the summer of 2008 in Wendover, Berkshire, England, Mandate Memories focuses on Jane Stirling (Rosina Reynolds), a sixty-two year old English widow, who lives in a picturesque home with a lovely well-tended garden. One morning, an elderly Jewish man from Israel, Gustav Frolich (Apollo Dukakis), comes to visit. Soon after arriving, he reveals to Jane that he knew her deceased father. Gustav then starts to slowly and meanderingly explain the circumstances of their acquaintance. Cue the “How I Met Your Mother” theme song.
Lionel Goldstein’s script is comprised of two extended scenes with one intermission separating them. They are both very different in tone from one and other. Act I contains little in the way of plot. Instead, it is more of a lengthy and angry debate between Gustav and Jane, who have opposing points of view about the state of Israel. Gustav believes in the Jewish homeland, since the Israelis had suffered too much, while Jane feels that Israel should be home to both the Israelis and Palestinians. Their interactions are tense, and theatergoers might feel uncomfortable during intermission after hearing such extended arguing.
Similar to many classic playwrights, Goldstein brings up many questions, but doesn’t necessarily offer any solutions to them. He goes in depth with Gustav and Jane’s views on Israel, without appearing to be in favor of one side over the other. However, the messages become less political in the second half of the show.
In Act II, the plot kicks in and the tone shifts from a topical narrative to a tale about the developing relationship between the two completely different individuals. There are several big twists, but try not to guess what they are in advance like several audience members did during a recent evening performance. Though this might seem like stating obvious and proper theater etiquette; you would not have known this based on those attending on the night I saw Mandate Memories.
If Goldstein’s dialogue at times seems to ramble in this two-person character study, it should be made clear that it is an intentional choice on his part. This is mostly because this narrative device provides theatergoers the ability to understand the complexities of the people in Mandate Memories and the important events that took place in their lives. This ultimately pays off during the climax and resolution, which will not be revealed in this article.
NCRT’s Artistic Director, David Ellenstein, lets people enter the world of the production in a deceivingly calm manner. He uses Marty Burnett’s sophisticated scenery, Matt Novotny’s intimate lighting design and Melanie Chen’s soothing sound design to initially create an atmosphere that is tranquil and peaceful. These relaxing elements make it all the more shocking when the casual dialogue between Gustav and Jane becomes heated.
Reynolds has such a natural presence, that she never makes her situations feel melodramatic. There is a lot of subtlety in how she conveys her life being changed by what Gustav has come to tell her.
Early on, in Mandate Memories, Dukakis, brother of the actress Olympia Dukakis, appears to have an overly buoyant persona. As the play progresses, viewers get to see different layers, as he clearly depicts his joy turning out to be a mask for a life full of disturbing events and pain.
The rapport between Dukakis and Reynolds is complicated to describe, because their interactions and connections change so significantly from moment to moment. They are always believable together and their exchanges can even be funny and occasionally breezy as well as impassioned and challenging.
Goldstein’s tale is one that will appeal to those who enjoy intelligent, relevant, thought provoking entertainment, coupled with outstanding performances from the actors and meaningful direction. May this just be the first staging of many more to come for the genuinely emotive drama, Mandate Memories. And as Passover concludes, next year in Jerusalem.