Have you ever done something without knowing why? –so asks a character in If You Don’t Weaken, and it comes at a very timely moment, for the audience may just be asking themselves why this woman is making such inexplicable, illogical decisions in her life. So is the character’s friend, for that matter. After all, why would a non-observing Jewish girl insist on going to a run-down, poorly-attended synagogue every day to say a prayer for her late grandfather? She isn’t sure she even believes in this ritual prayer, called the Kaddish, and having it said for her grandfather’s soul over the course of a year is proving a challenge, particularly considering that the ritual calls for a group of ten (men, preferably) to be present, and Amy (Rebecca Gebhard) doesn’t know that many Jews. She could go to a larger synagogue with more attendants; there is even one that allows women to say the prayer, and where they have groups who will volunteer to do this prayer, erasing the necessity of scrounging up your own mourners.
So why, then, is Amy insisting on doing things the hard way — things she isn’t even sure she believes in? It is straining her relationships with her friends, wreaking havoc on her ability to wring a meager living out of her small business (a video rental store; remember those?), and she doesn’t seem to be getting any personal relief or peace from the whole ordeal. But then she asks her friend Caron (Tara Lucchino): “haven’t you ever done something without knowing why?” and explains that she doesn’t know why she has to do this, but she just does. And as illogical as this explanation seems, it also rings incredibly true. Who among us hasn’t done something that, on paper, made no sense, out of an inexplicable sense of need?
By pure coincidence, If You Don’t Weaken is the second play I’ve seen in March that focuses on Jewish characters and issues of their faith. However, as was the case with the other show (Leah’s Train) this is not a play about being Jewish, but rather, a play about being human. But Jenna Zark‘s script (this is the world premiere, by the way!) does a wonderful job of incorporating things like religious beliefs into her characters’ lives without making those beliefs the focus. For example, this is the first play I can remember seeing that includes GLBT characters without making much of this detail — that is, that a female character is into other women is not really a focus in the story, it’s just part of who she is. Similarly, Judaism could easily be Buddhism or atheism and the heart of the story would be the same.
Overall, If You Don’t Weaken tells a touching story and asks intriguing questions about mortality, belief, relationships, heritage, and how and when we hold onto some things and let go of others. And yet it never gets bogged down in deep, philosophical musings, and although it has heartbreaking moments, it isn’t a sad play; it has a healthy dose of hope and humour. And a pole dancer — did I mention the pole dancer? And a bat infestation. Yeah, this play never gets boring.. not least of all because director Ariel Leaf keeps her talented cast moving at a fairly brisk pace. It’s maybe a little too fast around the middle; the audience could use a little more time to digest the emotions behind the actors, but in general, it’s better to move a little quickly than to have the action dragging on. At approximately 90 minutes (no intermission), this is definitely not a play that drags!
I was particularly impressed by the work done by set designer Micah Maatman and prop designer Corinna Knepper Troth. This is clearly a production with a small budget, but nothing looks shabby; it looks realistic, from Amy‘s beat-up but comfy couch, to the crowded, disorganised movie rental store. And while nimbus Theater‘s stage is fairly large and the sets are fairly minimal, the space feels relaxed and open, rather than spartan and empty.
As leading lady Amy, Rebecca Gebhart is touchingly earnest and confused, carrying the bulk of the story easily on her shoulders, and creating a solid anchor for the rest of the cast. Tara Lucchino does a convincing job as Amy’s friend Caron, whose aggressive front falters bit by bit, and Derek “Duck” Washington steals the scene every time his easygoing, sometimes goofy, sometimes insightful character, George, appears; he seems so at ease in his role that it’s hard to imagine him in anything else. The supporting cast is rounded out with Charles Numrich as the ghost of Amy’s grandfatehr Sidney, and Muriel Bonertz and Dann Peterson as Lena and Archie, who are a little cliché in their roles as the ageing synagogue regulars who delight in bickering with each other, but they’re so sweet you won’t really care.
If You Don’t Weaken is a sweet play that is well-performed and well-staged that probes the world of mourning, loss, and remembrance, without being too somber or sad.
If You Don’t Weaken by Jenna Zark, presented by Freshwater Theatre at Nimbus Theatre (1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN) March 28-April 12, 2015. Tickets are $18 r $15 (student/senior/Fringe button) at www.freshwatertheatre.com with pay-what-you-can performance April 6, ASL performance April 10, and audio described performance April 12.