Those of us raised in Jewish families will recall (with a mix of fear and affection) that larger-than-life figure known as the Jewish Grandmother, a towering being known for her boundless love and her connection to a past now lost in the murky fogs of time.
One of the central features of this Jewish Grandmother is the younger generation’s total and absolute inability to imagine her as being anything younger than ancient. But everyone was young once – and there hasn’t been a life yet that hasn’t endured regrets and sorrow, along with delicious cookies fresh from the oven.
American Jewish grandmother Rika (Sharron Shayne) makes her annual trip from New York to Israel to visit her older sister Edith (Leda Siskind), who lives on a kibbutz and is celebrating her 75th birthday. Edith and Rika are close, but they’ve lived very different lives: Edith emigrated from Germany to Palestine even before Hitler’s rise to power, while Rika fled to America and was raised by an aunt following her parents’ death in the Holocaust. While Edith felt embraced by her kibbutz and bolstered by her Zionist and socialist beliefs, Rika felt abandoned and alone — even though Rika was the sister who married, and had a child and grandchild.
When Edith and Rika get together, their bantering, mutually sniping relationship at first seems merely the product of sibling rivalry — but as their conversation over biscuits and kibbutz gossip continues, secrets gradually emerge that deepen our understanding of the pair beyond their being mere alter kochers.
In director Stewart J. Zully’s character-driven staging, we get a strong sense of who these two women are and how their relationship has developed and evolved over the last six decades. As the sisters, Shayne and Siskind nicely assay the barbed but fundamentally supportive repartee of people who have known each other since they were very young.
Siskind’s steely pragmatic Edith is appealingly no-nonsense, but her flinty carapace cracks, giving us glimpses of loss and loneliness. She’s engagingly matched by Shayne’s whinier and seemingly more fragile Rika, who lacks the psychological resources of the worldlier Edith.
The trouble is, it’s so hard to find the point or even a concrete storyline in playwright Gail Louw’s incredibly plodding narrative, which consists almost entirely of the older ladies sniping at each other. When a drama deals with the elderly, by necessity much of the plot is going to be backstory. Here, though, there is nothing but conversation, punctuated by Yiddish vocabulary.
And if there are secrets festering between the pair, they are secrets only to us. These ladies know what’s in their past only too well and, given that’s true, it’s hard to understand why they stay in the same room. The pacing is languid, and we’re unable to evade a sense of inconsequentiality in their conversation. There is no striking need to bring up the past, aside from mere narrative convenience.
The end result is that while Shayne and Siskind offer moving character turns, Louw’s plotting and structure simply don’t support them, resulting in a play that is just a little bit like a family reunion, with an aunt or cousin whom one wants to like but whom we really can’t bear to be around for longer than 20 minutes at a time.