The Invasion of Skokie CHICAGO DRAMATISTS
In 1976 the National Socialist Party of America, a neo-Nazi group led by Frank Collin, decided to hold a rally in Skokie, home to a large Jewish population—including, at the time, several thousand Holocaust survivors. The village government decided to stop it. The American Civil Liberties Union jumped in to defend the Nazis’ First Amendment rights (ACLU membership plummeted as a result), and a legal battle ensued, drawing national attention. The case eventually wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a ruling upholding the right to assemble and say unpopular—or, in this case, downright vile—things. The Nazis could march in Skokie.
Steven Peterson’s uneven comedy-drama, The Invasion of Skokie, begins on June 24, 1978, the eve of the planned march, and carries into the following day. It takes place in the fenced-in backyard of the Skokie bungalow belonging to Morry and Sylvia Kaplan, observant Jews who have the usual appurtenances of suburban life, including new patio furniture and a vague sense of disappointment. (Grant Sabin’s set appears to have been airlifted directly from the Carter years.) They’re having some people over for dinner tonight: daughter Debbie, a liberal, tart-tongued corporate attorney; Charlie, their synagogue’s former shabbes goy (a non-Jew who does tasks the faithful are prohibited from performing on Shabbat); and Howie, family friend and born loser.
Despite Sylvia’s pleas to set law, politics, and history aside for a night, Morry and Debbie spar over the Nazi rally—especially when it comes out that Morry has gotten hold of a rifle he plans to take with him to a counterprotest. Things really come to a head, though, with Charlie’s surprise announcement that he and Debbie are engaged. Since Charlie has no plans to convert, Morry not only refuses to give his blessing but lumps his would-be son-in-law in with Collin’s brownshirts. “They want to take our lives,” he says, “but you want to take our souls.”
Eviscerating moments like that not withstanding, much of the dust-up plays out—both in Peterson’s script and Richard Perez’s Chicago Dramatists staging—like an extended episode of All in the Family, with Morry blowing a gasket and Debbie sounding like an op-ed. (“If we only defended the speech we agreed with, it wouldn’t be free speech!”) She and Charlie come across basically as prods, designed to provoke a crisis in Morry.
In fact, all of the characters function primarily as satellites of the patriarch. Poor, clownish Howie is his comic foil and apologist. (To Debbie: “Your father’s a funny man—not comedian funny, in-his-heart funny.”) And though Sylvia operates a successful real estate business, she lets her husband play lord and master because, as she explains to Debbie, “men need love—but they also need respect.”
If this Morry-centrism doesn’t sink The Invasion of Skokie, it’s because the character is so well drawn. His efforts to style himself as a suburban commando—preparing to meet the Nazis by packing heat and a lunch (“a chicken sandwich, some Hydrox, and a pickle”)—provide the funniest moments and also the saddest ones. Beneath his ridiculous tough-guy posturing lie a heartbreaking sense of bafflement and hurt and a sneaking suspicion that he’s turned out a failure. Morry has worked hard to achieve what he calls “the whole American what-do-you-call-it” while adhering to his faith, believing himself charged to protect it from both outright attack and insidious dilution. And then what happens? The government lets Nazis parade down Main Street and his daughter takes up with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Lutheran. No wonder he feels besieged.
As it happened, the neo-Nazis never marched in Skokie. They held demonstrations in Lincolnwood, downtown Chicago, and on their home turf, in Marquette Park, instead. For Morry, it doesn’t feel like a victory. “All my life I wanted to do something,” he says, and Mick Weber, who plays Morry with sour-faced indignation, looks ready to choke on yet another bitter pill. I thought of the chronically constipated father in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a man whose very bowels were “gripped by the iron hand of outrage and frustration.” At its best, The Invasion of Skokie evokes the same mix of pathos and fury.