National Jewish Theater

My Confucian-turned-Protestant mother has told me since childhood to beware of marrying (a) an Orthodox Jew, (b) a born-again Christian, and (c) any kind of Catholic–the first for reasons having to do with dietary proscriptions and the latter two for reasons having to do with birth control and divorce (which says a lot about my mother’s attitudes toward marriage). I mention this autobiographical detail to point out that the phenomenon of otherwise open-minded and rational adults suddenly reverting to dogma in regard to prospective mates for their offspring is not restricted to Jewish and Catholic families. If the lobby talk during intermission was any indication, more than one audience member at the National Jewish Theater was nudged in a personal place by the problem that forms the crux of Solomons’ Choice.

Carol and Ben Solomon live with the latter’s mother, Lena, in a Skokie bungalow. Frances and Tim Donahue live on a dairy farm in Kenosha. Paths and swords cross when Mark Solomon and Anne Marie Donahue announce that they are in love and intend to marry. The bride’s mother and the groom’s mother and grandmother voice their disapproval in no uncertain terms (the two fathers bond immediately and get on amiably throughout), but the children remain adamant in their proposal to merge. Then a second complication develops: Mark has grown up believing Carol and Ben to be his true parents, but in fact he is his father’s son by a former marriage–to one Elizabeth Colleen O’Connor. By genealogical custom this means that Mark, though reared as a Jew, must undergo the three-year conversion process.

A year and a half later, the couple is happily married and living in a house with a menorah on the mantelpiece and a Christmas tree in the bay window–but tensions have not abated between the newlyweds and their in-laws. Furthermore, Mark’s studies have made him so aware of his Judaic heritage that he finally declares to his wife that he cannot in good conscience permit his child to be raised in both their faiths. This countermands their prenuptial agreement, and Anne Marie, now nine months pregnant, is understandably distressed. For a while it seems to be a problem even the original Solomon couldn’t have solved. But wise Grandma Lena comes through with a solution that restores harmony–albeit an uneasy harmony–to all concerned.

The conflict between the Jewish Solomons and the Catholic Donahues is not one of theology but of upbringing–religion has shaped their customs and habits. The initial clash between Mmes. Solomon and Donahue is not over Mosaic and canon law but over their personal recollections of State Street–Carol thinks of shopping at Marshall Field’s, and Frances thinks of a daughter taking her final vows at Holy Name Cathedral. Carol’s funny story about her son’s first efforts at cooking flanken meets with silence from Frances, who confesses ignorance of both the dish and its preparation. The family heirlooms that the parents bestow on the young couple are both icons of their different faiths: a mezuzah for the doorway and a star for the top of the Christmas tree. Even Anne Marie, who claims not to have gone to church for many years, looks for comfort in the nativity figurines and a childish “Hail Mary.”

However seriously or lightly one may take it, however big or small a role it plays in one’s day-to-day existence, the faith in which one was raised is an integral part of one’s being. Any attempt to deny its importance–whatever the belief–will leave the denouncer disoriented and dangerously anomic. The resolution presented in Solomons’ Choice is by no means a perfect one–though it’s no worse than the one alluded to in the play’s title.

Cheryl Lavin and Marilynn Preston, who also wrote last summer’s Celebrity Beat, have demonstrated a facility for pushing the right buttons for the right crowds–Solomons’ Choice has constipation jokes for the elderly, pregnancy jokes for their children, and bar mitzvah jokes for their children. There isn’t a newlywed-sex joke in sight in this family-oriented drama. The religious humor is occasionally vulgar (as in Mark’s nightmare revelation of his father-in-law dressed as a combination of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ) but never seriously blasphemous–the play’s “blood and cookies” wisecrack has probably been uttered by every Catholic schoolboy since Peter Abelard. Unfortunately, Lavin and Preston seem all too often content to simply carry out the formula. There are many dead-in-the-water moments when characters didactically recite the thoughts and feelings that would have taken only a minute or two longer to show. Faced with these lapses of internal activity, the actors often don’t even attempt to suggest subtext but zip through the lines and on to more significant material.

This is not to say that the entire cast, under the sure direction of Michael Leavitt, do not deliver workmanlike performances, fleshing out their two-dimensional characters with humanity and compassion. Particularly praiseworthy are Elizabeth Muckley and Neil Kobin as Carol and Ben Solomon: they reveal through their actions and facial expressions a palpable affection for one another that somehow eludes the others in their familial relationships. Meg Thalken is also good as Anne Marie, whose earnest attempt to pronounce “l’chaim” wins us over immediately. Jane MacIver’s feisty Lena draws perhaps a bit too much on Estelle Getty’s Italian padrona in The Golden Girls but is a fine portrayal nonetheless of feminine brains (didn’t Yeats once contend that Solomon grew wise by listening to women?). Bernadette O’Malley’s Frances is also a formidable matriarchal specimen, though she could go a little farther into the Jansenite gloom that distinguishes Irish Catholics from their Mediterranean counterparts. She wouldn’t want to be as grim, however, as Warren Fritzinger and Bobby R. Moss, who play a pair of cartoonish Yankee rednecks–so much for the Protestant contingent–who steal the brief scene in which they’re inadvertently mistaken for the bride’s parents.

Though National Jewish Theater hires professionals, it might be more properly called a community theater serving the predominantly Jewish communities based in Skokie and other nearby suburbs. (Scheduled for January 9-13 are performances of Solomons’ Choice translated into Russian for the benefit of newly arrived immigrants from the Soviet Union.) The problems explored in Solomons’ Choice are universal, however. As much as we might want to believe otherwise, the decision to marry outside of one’s tribe–whether the barriers are religious, ethnic, economic, sexual, or chronological–is still a very serious matter in virtually all segments of our heterogeneous society. Whatever its literary shortcomings, Solomons’ Choice argues a salient point–that though one’s cultural identity is necessary and important, life is to be valued above all. In the grim dawn of 1991, facing what could be another divisive war for our increasingly factionalized citizenry, it’s hard to dispute that.