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“A Splintered Soul” Drama in a Vacuum Splint

By Ernest Kearney  —  We are told by author Alan L. Brooks, he is “a doctor, not a playwright – and he has a 40 year career as a radiologist to prove it.”

First, let me get the “cheap shot” outa the way: “Alan, keep your day job.”

Now as Henny Youngman would say, “But seriously folks—”

Brooks has a scholarly knowledge of his subject, Holocaust survivors in America, and it shows.  His play A Splintered Soul, captured the 2005 Moondance International Film Festival Award (for best stage drama), had a 2007 production at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and was given an off-Broadway mounting in 2011 before arriving at the Long Beach International City Theatre.

The production at the ICT, like the majority of their productions, is exquisite to behold thanks to Yuri Okahana’s stark and provocative set, lighting design by Donna Ruzika, and costumes by Kim DeShazo.

It is undeniable that Artistic Director and Producer caryn desai has a stunning sense of theatre craft.

On stage, part concentration camp, part wharf, and part the less glamorous San Francisco of the playwright’s (Brooks) youth, we are introduced to Rabbi Kroeller (Stephen Rockwell), a survivor and legendary figure from the Holocaust, a man burdened by many ghosts.   It is 1947 and now the Rabbi is the head of the Polish expatriate community of survivors in San Francisco.

His benefactor is Judge Martin Levinsky (Louis A. Lotorto), an American Jew, who at the outset of the first act brings to the Rabbi the concerns of the Jewish-Americans, supporting them in their new home in the states.

It seems the secretive meetings of the Rabbi’s group with other refugees has attracted the attention of their American hosts, as well as their unwarranted suspicions.

A resurgence of the “Red Scare” from the ‘20s is beginning to grip the nation again as the frost of mutual distrust begins to collect on the former Allies that would result in the “Cold War.”  Russia is still two years away from stunning the West with its first test of the Soviet A-bomb.  But already in March of 1947, President Harry S. Truman has put into effect Executive Order 9835, commonly known as the “Loyalty Order,” mandating the investigation of all federal employees for ties to any organization deemed subversive; a severe blow against personal liberty that would stain the American landscape for decades to come.  ** writer's hand **

For their “secretiveness” and their foreignness some among their sponsors have begun to fear Kroeller’s group as a “Red Cell.”

This is just one of the many intriguing and sound perspectives that Brooks’ play has to offer.

Of course, the Rabbi’s “Socratic” gatherings are not a collective of Commie sleepers, but a support group for individuals who have shared a special hell few can speak of and far, far fewer survived.

Stephen Rockwell, Quinn Francis, Brandon Root – “A Splintered Soul”  (Photo by Tracey Roman)

Gerta (Allison Blaize), Mordechi (Nathan Mohebbi) and the perpetually angry Sol (Jon Weinberg) have walked the land of the damned in various Nazi camps and now struggle with the burdens of their survival, seek healing, and try not, merely, to claim some happiness for themselves, but come to accept they are deserving of any.

This crisis of doubt they face in their new homeland is added on to as the Rabbi’s flock is abruptly increased by the arrival of Elisa (Quinn Francis) and Harold (Brandon Root), frightened young Polish siblings who come to the Rabbi bringing a horrifying tale of sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of Count Vasa, an aristocratic Pole who sheltered them from the Nazis and has brought them to San Francisco to participate in an art swindle.

And it is here where Brooks’ tale separates itself from the typical path found in dramas of the Holocaust.

But that uniqueness does not translate into successful theatre.

The two debilitating flaws of the work are in the pat mechanisms of its plotting and its characterizations.

Brooks has indeed put forward a narrative that veers off the expected course, but having done that he falls into a by the numbers series of events—the climax of which is realized off stage, unseen—that come about with melodramatic predictability.

Brooks has also sketched solidly defined characters but then denies them any sense of conflict over their actions, the very soul of drama.

All of the survivors face issues of grave moral gravity, and all of them make their choices with the comparable ease of deciding whether to “supersize” their Big Mac or not.

It is the Rabbi that Brooks lays the most profound issue before.  The playwright even conceives of a dramatic device for confronting such matters in the ghost of the Rabbi’s Sarah (Madeleine Falk in one of her trio of roles).

Brooks opens his play with this device in what is the evening’s most memorable moment.

Thereafter Brooks moves his characters about like a skilled chess player.  Unfortunately, while the ending may come as somewhat of a surprise, the pieces all move with the Rules’ enforced predictability, and chess games make for poor theater.

The evening benefits, as most of the evenings at the ICT do, from a cast with which it is hard to find fault. Rockwell commands the stage with a presence like the brooding Ahab, which makes it even more regrettable that the writer provided him no whale.

For their efforts, the rest of the ensemble earn ample feathers for their bonnets especially Falk who cloaks each of her three roles with divisions of distinction, and Blaize and Weinberg who manage to find variations in the single notes with which the playwright has saddled their characters.

The best and the worst that can be said of A Splintered Soul is that it is a crafted work, but not a theatrical work.

That it is an intelligent undertaking will be manifest to any audience.  Brooks seems to know the themes he wishes to engage: “The difference between what we do to survive and what is truly evil,” the lamentable historical motif of the victim assuming the role of victimizer, the sufferings of the “stranger in our land.”

In the relationship of the Rabbi to his flock and in his sense of himself, there may even be hints of the problematic complexity of Messianic Judaism.

But these themes are not presented as tapestries but x-rays.  As perhaps one should expect of a medical professional, Brooks has produced a work both methodical and sterile in nature.

Good dramas tend to be messy and bloody.

 

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** writer's hand **  Aside from the extended ranks of individuals that fell as victims to blacklisting, nearly 300 organizations came to be included on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations started under Truman.  They included such groups as the American Youth Congress, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the Japanese Association of America, the Jewish Culture Society, the Garibaldi American Fraternal Society, the Oklahoma League for Political Education and the KKK.   The list was only closed down in 1974 under the Nixon administration.

 

♦     ♦     ♦

A Splintered Soul

ran from

Oct. 19 to Nov. 4, 2018

at

International City Theatre / ICT
in the
Beverly O’Neill Theatre
330 East Seaside Way,
Long Beach, CA 90802
(at intersection of S. Hart Place)
Box Office: 562-436-4610

 


 

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(NOTE: Featured Image  — Allison Blaize, Madeleine Falk, Jon Weinberg / Photo by Tracey Roman)

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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