National Jewish Theater

One disturbing aspect of growing older is to discover our parents in the morning mirror–staring back at us just the way they looked at what’s now our age. The resemblance calls into question any pretensions to an independent identity. Maybe, we fear, our acts of willful disobedience have been vain efforts to evade their pasts, which will eventually be our own. Maybe the seeds they planted were so many time bombs.

Those fears are even more disturbing when you find yourself trapped under the big shadow cast by a famous parent. In her 1976 memoir In My Mother’s House, feminist writer Kim Chernin detailed the love-hate relationship between herself and her mother, Rose Chernin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who became a communist leader and fearless labor agitator.

Arnold Aprill’s meticulous and celebratory adaptation, now premiering at the National Jewish Theater, has Kim giving in to Rose’s gentle nagging and agreeing to write her mother’s exciting life story. In flashbacks acted out by the middle-aged Rose, we glimpse her warm childhood in a Russian shtetl. That childhood turns cold when she arrives in America in the years before World War I and realizes what a hard man her father has become. (Before deserting his daughters he institutionalizes Rose’s mother, who apparently never recovered from the sight of a burning cross on her lawn.) Rose’s hatred of injustice begins at home, triggered by her father.

Early on Rose launches her struggle, defying a school principal who suspends her for attending a radical meeting. Later she lambastes the cops who try to break up a rent strike, protests the imprisonment of 14 women whose crime was attempting to join a union, makes a pilgrimage to Russia with her engineer husband Paul, then returns to fight in a United States where communists are an embattled minority, rescues her mother from a cold-blooded asylum, watches her daughter Nina die of Hodgkin’s disease, and inevitably finds herself caught up in Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt.

Rose’s leftist crusades take their toll on her family (though E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and the film Running on Empty depict similar situations more fully). When Rose leaves Paul in Russia to return to the United States he learns that the movement is at least as important to her as their marriage. It’s also, as Kim bitterly reminds her mother, as important to Rose as motherhood.

Kim’s resentment at having to share her mother’s love with a cause is what gives In My Mother’s House its small amount of tension. Otherwise Aprill’s worshipful adaptation of these somewhat reticent memoirs reads a bit too much like Mother Knows Best. Rose’s victories come too easily, the rapid changes in mood and abrupt transitions seem to evade the story’s darker side, and too many conflicts are resolved with a hug.

Certain questions are never asked: How did Rose feel when the New Deal seemed to co-opt the communist agenda? Or when Hitler joined forces with her beloved Stalin? Why do we hear only at the end about the loved one who died in a concentration camp? How did Rose reconcile her communist/atheist sympathies with her Jewish faith? (At one point a Jewish woman in Moscow tells Rose that the workers’ paradise is a hell for Jews, but such ambiguous moments are rare and brief in this upbeat production.) It doesn’t help that the script downplays Rose’s labor agitation.

In Estelle Goodman Spector’s heartfelt staging the anger that must have made Rose a formidable opponent has been muted in favor of this remarkable woman’s softer side. Though the result is pleasant enough, it’s sometimes hard to see in Marge Kotlisky’s sweetly sensitive Rose the larger-than-life matriarch against whom Kim (perkily played by Barbara Faye Wallace) supposedly rebels. The brief mother-daughter squabbles never threaten major emotional damage: the inevitable hug sets things right again. I’m convinced Leo Buscaglia has done irreparable damage to contemporary plays.