By Oline H. Cogdill
Family get-togethers can be fraught with underlying disagreements, resentments augmented by past histories. But in the case of the extended family in Zoetic Stage’s solid production of the intelligent Wicked Child, it is love and respect that drive these Passover dinners.
But still, the vagaries of family issues, differing politics, religion and anti-Semitism have a way of seeping into this tight-knit group, driving a wedge that will take an enormous amount of love to overcome.
Passover seders, the complexities of Judaism and intuitive conversation punctuate Wicked Child, written by by Miami native David Rosenberg and flawlessly directed by Zoetic Stage co-founder Stuart Meltzer. This world premiere of Wicked Child runs through Jan. 28 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
Each year the well-appointed home of Mark (Michael McKeever) and Faye (Jeni Hacker) Silver in Rye, New York, is the setting for the annual Passover Seder. Joining the Silvers are Faye’s sister Cindy Blumenthal (Margery Lowe), her husband Leo (Wayne LeGette), and Leo’s son Jake (Ben Katz) who has invited his Asian American girlfriend Amelia Hyunh (Gracie Blu). They are awaiting the arrival of Cindy’s son Ben Baum (Jeff Brackett), who has been on vacation in Israel the past two weeks.
The conversation is light with a few serious undertones, especially with Cindy telling Amelia that she must someday go to Israel while subtly hinting about converting. The Seder includes readings, some in Hebrew (Amelia surprises everyone with her recitation), food, wine and much laughter.
This is the kind of family whose Seder would be a pleasure to attend. Ben and Jake grew up together after their mother and father married; they were raised not as stepbrothers or stepchildren but as brothers, so they became close. “I didn’t know you were such a bro,” Amelia chides Jake when he and Ben playfully jab at each other.
Then Ben drops his big news. He is leaving his lucrative associate’s job at a New York law firm to join the Israeli Defense Force. And not just the Israeli military but the combat division.
This secular Jewish family is thrown in a tailspin. It is one thing to visit Israel and believe in that country. It is another thing to live there and join its military. The family is torn between pride in what Ben is doing and worry. They are all concerned that he may be throwing away a good career that he has worked hard to achieve and, more importantly, that he might get hurt, or worse. This is especially true of Ben’s doting, anxiety-ridden mother, Cindy.
The first act takes place in 2022. The second act takes place at the 2023 Passover Seder, and much has happened during that year as the family, once again awaits Ben’s arrival from Israel.
This time it is Jake who makes a big speech, once again throwing the family into turmoil and drawing a wedge that may be irreparable.
Wicked Child takes its title from a portion in the Seder called The Four Children in which each child asks a different question. The Wicked Child asks “What does this mean to you?” in an act of separation from community and tradition. Playwright Rosenberg subtly weaves this into his script as he expounds on the question—can vastly different political briefs tear apart a family or cause a couple to break up? The answer is of course. One only as to look at recent or upcoming elections to know that.
While Wicked Child is about myriad issues, Rosenberg skillfully weaves the various plot points into a fascinating drama that never stalls. The characters are believable—they could be your neighbors or family—who actually talk to each other. Meltzer further expounds on the script with his invisible direction that keeps these characters constantly in motion.
Wicked Child works well as an ensemble piece, further emphasizing the theme of a family. Meltzer has assembled some of South Florida’s best actors who have worked together before and their chemistry together excels. Yet each actor has their spotlight moments.
The two couples—Lowe and LeGette, Hacker and McKeever—are convincing as married partners. LeGette’s Leo has done his best to treat both sons as his own, continuing to love both. Lowe, who was so excellent in the recent intense The Messenger at Palm Beach Dramaworks, shows a character who, on the surface, may seem superficial. But as Lowe delves into Cindy, she excavates a deeply caring mother, a loving wife who wants to keep the peace who is still learning about issues that plague our world.
McKeever adds dignity and a bit of humor watching his family falling apart while quietly dealing with the cancer and afteraffects of chemotherapy about which he and his wife are being discreet.
Blu, an intriguing actress, makes the most of her pivotal role as the only one who doesn’t share the family’s history nor their religion.
Hacker showcases her considerable talents as a dramatic actress with her impassioned, articulate arguments with her nephews. Her pivotal role grows in each scene, especially in the second act. Hacker’s range embraces each role with force whether it is comedy as the stressed-out high school director in the recent The Thanksgiving Play (GableStage) or singing as the witch in Into the Woods (Slow Burn) or the lead in Next to Normal (Zoetic).
Brackett and Katz each have scenes in which they take command of the stage as brothers who find themselves on opposite sides politically, trying to keep their relationship intact while each knows their arguments may drive them apart. Brackett and Katz are passionate about their viewpoints and we hope to see these actors in many future productions.
Kudos to the technical staff with B.J. Duncan scenic design that shows an upscale living room, dining area, kitchen and two bedrooms, even a portable cocktail bar. (I want that sofa!). The dining room’s turntable acts a metaphor for changing views. Becky Montero’s lighting design, Matt Corey’s sound design and Laura Turnbull’s costume design further set the tone with resident stage manager Vanessa McCloskey keeping all the parts seamlessly moving.
Wicked Child came to Zoetic during the search for new plays through The Finstrom Festival, named after Tony Finstrom, the late arts patron and playwright. The play, under the title Effect If Not Intent, led to a reading and a workshop during the 2022 festival. Meltzer writes that Wicked Child was chosen long before the events of Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. The timeliness of Wicked Child is a coincidence.
Wicked Child is the kind of thought-provoking theater that Zoetic does so well.
Wicked Child, presented by Zoetic Stage, runs through Jan. 28 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2.30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets $55-$60. Call 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org