Review: ‘The Last Yankee’ & ’74 Georgia Avenue’
Depressing themes give way to bright performances at JET
I can hear it now.
“Wanna go see a play tonight?” someone somewhere in metro Detroit will ask their partner or friend.
“Sure,” will be the response. “How about those two one-acts at JET … you know, the ones written by those two Jewish playwrights?”
“What are they about?”
“Despair. Depression. Disappointment. Isolation.”
“Oh, yeah! Sure! Sounds like a barrel of laughs! Say, what’s playing at the movies instead?”
Such a response would be a shame since the two unrelated plays – “The Last Yankee” by Arthur Miller and “74 George Avenue” by Murray Schisgal – are anything but depressing. Rather, both offer hope – a ray of sunshine – to those experiencing the worst life as to offer. And each clearly shows that even at our lowest moments, we’re never truly alone; help can come from the most unexpected sources!
In “The Last Yankee,” two women – one with a rich, productive husband and the other with a husband of great skill but little ambition – find themselves in a state mental hospital suffering from depression. Karen Frick has slowly withdrawn from the world around her, but a friendship that blossoms with Patricia Hamilton serves to spark a return to a productive life. Patricia, on the other hand, is in the hospital for the third time. This might be her last, however, since she’s secretly stopped taking her medication; for the first time in years, she’s thinking clearly again.
Too bad self-confidence isn’t the only battle each must overcome; it’s visitation day, and their husbands have arrived to check their progress.
Although it’s an interesting concept, “The Last Yankee” is not one of Miller’s better scripts. For starters, the playwright can’t seem to decide whose story is being told: the husbands’ or the wives’? And his psychology is sketchy at best. (When in doubt, blame the husbands.)
In the hands of director Lavinia Hart, however, Miller’s script blossoms. She avoids the temptation to explore the extremes to which these disparate characters could gravitate; instead, she fills it with nuances and shadings that, instead, provide deeper insights into their lives.
Fine performances are given by Lynnae Lehfeldt (Patricia), Thomas D. Mahard (John Frick) and Seth Amadei (Leroy Hamilton).
But it’s Laurie V. Logan’s performance as Karen who truly stands out. Watching Karen come alive only to fade away once again is gut-wrenching. And amazing to watch. It’s a level of performance we’ve come to expect from one of the town’s greatest assets.
The second half of the evening also raises the bar for local actors.
In “74 Georgia Avenue,” Mahard plays Marty Robbins, a married man lost in life who returns to his childhood apartment seeking his Jewish roots. There he finds Joseph Watson (played by James Bowen), a black man whose wife is dying and who’s searching for roots to connect with.
Marty comes at a bad time with an odd request: Let him spend the night so he can reunite with his past. But when Joseph reveals his connection to Marty’s childhood – and begins to channel people they both knew from the past – a transformation occurs. And a new connection is made.
Those who want to observe two masters at their craft should look no farther than JET. Earlier this season it was Arthur Beer and Council Cargle in “I’m Not Rappaport” and now it’s Bowen and Mahard in “74 Georgia Avenue.”
In this evening of theater, Mahard creates two totally separate and distinct characters; not only are their vocal qualities unique, so too are the physical attributes. There’s never a lapse in Mahard’s expert performance!
Likewise, Bowen excels in his transformations into various Jewish characters. By donning nothing more than simple articles of clothing, Bowen becomes someone new; watch closely and you’ll briefly see the moment the new character takes control – or leaves. It’s as if a dybbuk has assumed command over Bowen’s body. (Wait a minute – that was an earlier production this season at JET!)
Adding to the evening’s enjoyment is Monika Essen’s brightly colored set. It’s rare to walk into a theater and be dazzled by a set design, but the golds, reds and oranges of Essen’s fall-themed background is almost overwhelming – especially while we’re patiently waiting for spring to finally make its appearance!
“The Last Yankee” & “74 Georgia Avenue” Staged Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the Aaron DeRoy Theater, 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield, through- April 17. Tickets: $25 – $37. 248-788-2900.