National Jewish Theater

Even the best ingredients will be wasted if the chef can’t cook. A National Jewish Theater adaptation by Arnold Aprill and Jaqueline Penrod of the late Isaac Bashevis Singer’s colorful memoirs, In My Father’s Court seems blessed with promise, but though the inspiration is there, it hasn’t quite been shaped for the stage.

The Nobel laureate’s coming-of-age chronicle affectionately re-creates his years in pre-World War I Warsaw, where from the vantage of his father’s rabbinical court young Isaac learned to separate life from art and both from religion. To bring this densely textured album to life means re-creating the bustle, gaiety, and gossip of the Warsaw ghetto. Singer sharply detailed the small-town crises–divorces and engagements, death duties and violations of dietary law–that besieged Pinchos Mendel, his reclusive, spiritual, and distant father. This much-tested leader had to combine, often at the same time, the roles of shrink, healer, justice of the peace, and marriage counselor. In the Mendels’ Orthodox home, no sinful statues or paintings disgraced the walls, and books and newspapers were discouraged–they distracted from the contemplation of Scripture.

Singer tautly contrasts the family members: the dourly devout father, rapt in the mysteries of a world more solid than the one he endures (“The Messiah,” he warns, “won’t come with all this doubt”); the practical, fatalistic mother; and the older brother, Israel, a skeptical artist whose apostasy provides both inspiration and warning to the impressionable younger brother, Isaac. The outside world is fleshed out by a host of deft cameo creations–a compulsive maker of wills who, however healthy he is, imagines himself on the edge of death; a kindly old gentile washerwoman who embarrasses young Isaac by telling him how he resembles Jesus; an ultra-Orthodox patriarch with a comical aversion to the sight of women; a believer who returns from the Holy Land touched in more ways than one; a tailor who, in exchange for Scripture lessons, replaces Isaac’s worn-out gabardine with a shiny new coat that he can wear to the “study house.”

At its best In My Father’s Court offers a time trip as solid as any of Chagall’s nostalgic paintings, though it lacks their flights of whimsy. And this generous and, at 150 minutes, overlong adaptation sags under the weight of too much unprocessed experience. There’s little urgency to its discoveries and no thematic momentum–if only the adapters had focused on the artist’s awakening, for instance, or the rebellion of one generation against another or a child’s view of the adult world. Dutifully this production evokes an era, with no event counting more than any other.

But even where the adaptation lacks focus, Aprill’s staging can charm and persuade: the cast work like dynamos to duplicate this bygone world. Though only ten years old, Timothy Ferrin captures the infectious enthusiasm and curiosity of the young narrator. (When his father rebukes him by saying, “You speak like a child,” he briskly answers, “I am a child!”) Ferrin offers a bratty contrast to Brian Kolb, who gives the older brother a steady affection and restless ferment (it’s one of the few parts the adapters would have done well to develop more).

The parents sometimes seem emotionally muted, however. Liz Muckley as Isaac’s mother conveys solid grace under pressure, but David Cromer (patently too young for the part) is almost too self-effacing as the father with his eyes on another world. Watching them, it seems likely the adapters have soft-pedaled Singer’s picture of the destructive effects of a rigid orthodoxy (a subject that National Jewish Theater’s last show, Sins of the Father, explored more openly).

The supporting characters provide much of the production’s impetus: Gary Houston’s kvetching petitioners, Karen Pratt’s moving depiction of a grieving mother, Colleen Crimmins’s credulous villagers. Bruce Orendorf’s collection of well-contrasted shtetl stereotypes is especially vivid.

The earth-toned multilevel set by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod splendidly evokes the claustrophobic connections of a close-knit neighborhood; Frances Maggio’s costumes seem to have come directly from the pages of a crumbling photo album. Larry Schanker’s memory-tripping score so enhances the story I wish it had been more fully integrated–it can be heard in its complete form only before the show and during intermission.