A young Chinese woman stands in the foreground. Behind her are four white people around a dining room table--an older man and woman, a middle-aged woman, and another young woman.
In Every Generation at Victory Gardens Theater Credit: Liz Lauren

In a recent New Yorker profile of Natasha Lyonne, star and creator of the trippy Netflix series Russian Doll, Lyonne reflects on her heritage as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and how that trauma creates ripple effects through the generations. “I joke that there’s a straight line from Hitler to heroin,” she says.

The Levi-Katz family we meet in Ali Viterbi’s In Every Generation, now in its world premiere at Victory Gardens under Devon de Mayo’s direction, isn’t shooting up, but they’re primed for generational pain. Only perhaps, as Grandmother Paola (Carmen Roman) warns, maybe they’re still a little too comfortable sitting around the seder table in 2019, in southern California. What makes them think it can’t happen again, in the United States? There are more than four questions facing the family, and the answer goes beyond the cheeky response we hear: “They tried to kill us. They didn’t. Let’s eat.”

In Every Generation Through 5/1: Tue-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Wed 4/20, 2 PM (open captioned performance); no performances Sat 4/16 and Tue 4/19; open captioning also Fri-Sat 4/22-4/23; ASL interpretation, audio description, and touch tour Fri 4/22; audio description/touch tour also Sun 5/1, 3 PM (touch tour begins 90 minutes before showtime); Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000, victorygardens.org, $29-$62.

Grandpa Davide (Paul Dillon) is an Auschwitz survivor in the late stages of ALS, while Paola rode out the war in the relative safety of a convent in Zagreb after fleeing Italy as an orphan. Their daughter, Valeria (Eli Katz), an art history professor still reeling from her rabbi husband abandoning her for another woman in the congregation, is hosting the seder under protest. Paola and Davide’s granddaughters have their own issues. Yael (Esther Fishbein) is back from Yale, filled with the fiery righteousness of a newborn campus activist, while Devorah, or Dev (Sarah Lo), the homebody, is delving deeper into Judaism. 

A lot comes flooding out at that dinner, including the fear of growing anti-Semitism in the U.S. in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh only months earlier. The conflict between Dev (adopted from China as a baby) and Yael takes root in the familiar soil of who bears the greater responsibility for taking care of elders, as well as Dev’s own insecurity as to how much she really is tied to the family’s history. Yael is collecting her grandparents’ stories, while Dev is tending to their physical needs. Yael is also fascinated by epigenetics—essentially, the study of how trauma imprints on DNA, which makes Dev feel even less connected.

It would all be meaty enough for one meal. But Viterbi spreads it out over four different seders, spanning centuries. In the second act, we meet the family again in various configurations. First, Roman and Dillon reappear as younger versions of Paola and Davide, enjoying their first seder in the United States in 1954, where Davide tells a different story about an incident in Auschwitz than the one we heard in the first act. Roman and Dillon are terrific at pulling at the tightly entwined threads of fear and survivor’s guilt, alongside love and lust (their decision to go for a “sexy seder” is simply delightful) and unraveling all that it takes to survive the worst thing imaginable.

In 2050, middle-aged Yael and Dev have reunited after a period of estrangement. Paola and Davide are long dead, of course, and now Valeria is in a wheelchair, unable to speak (but communicating through some unexplained tech device that apparently reads her thoughts). It’s the first seder the family has had after another period of anti-Semitic repression—one that cost Valeria her university job, and one that is all too imaginable in the current climate. So much so that we, along with the sisters, jump when there’s a knock at the door—especially since we know Dev, who is now a rabbi, has put a mezuzah back up as a marker of her faith. 

Finally, Viterbi goes full Russian Doll time-travel with us, sending us all the way back to the first seder in 1416 BCE. But narrative echoes from the previous dinners recur in the dialogue, and anachronistic artifacts (Valeria’s beloved Diet Coke) pop up out of the sand surrounding the set. (For this production, de Mayo and set designers Andrew Boyce and Lauren Nichols have cunningly reconfigured the downstairs space at Victory Gardens from its usual proscenium to allow audience seating on two sides, as if we’re silent participants in the dinner. It’s a terrific choice.)

The last scene feels oddly superfluous and anticlimactic, undercutting the tensions that de Mayo and Viterbi build so carefully in the near-dystopian future of 2050. We’ve grown to understand these characters over the first three scenes so well that this coda feels unnecessary and self-conscious, reducing them at times almost to caricatures. Still, Viterbi’s dialogue, de Mayo’s staging, and the rich performances offer us plenty to consider about survival, fear, and love. Even if the narrative line gets a little crooked by the end.