After the Holocaust, If there Can Indeed Be an After
Lawerence Van Gelder
The profound, agonizing mystery of the Holocaust echoes through the generations and across international borders in the thoughtful and provocative new play at the Jewish Repertory Theater.
Touching on the meaning of the Holocaust to Americans and American Jews as World War II recedes into history, revisiting the role of tradition in Jewish life, examining the relationships of parents and children, putting the magnifying glass to the Holocaust as an ingredient of American politics and foreign policy, and grappling with its impact on a nation of Germans born in its aftermath, “The Gathering” re-examines an awesome human and theological enigma as an old century prepares to give way to a new millennium.
In this light, the play ponders the hold of the past on present and future as its action moves from two apartments in New York City to Bitburg, Germany, and its cemetery for Hitler’s troops.
Written by Arje Shaw and starring Theodore Bikel as a survivor of Dachau, “The Gathering,” despite its weighty subject, is as filled with humor and warmth as it is seething with anger, guilt and remorse. If, toward the end, its wrenching confrontation with great questions shies off into personal revelations that seem to reduce the cosmic to the convenient, nevertheless “The Gathering” stands as worthy, engaging, potent theater. Directed by Rebecca Taylor at high speed and with a sure touch for both its comedy and fierce drama, “The Gathering” is performed by a sparkling cast orbiting around Mr. Bikel’s stellar depiction of Gabe, who is first seen in his apartment sculpturing a granite bust of one of his moral heroes, Muhammad Ali.
Life seems good.
Besides his work, Gabe, a widower, takes great joy in his lively, intelligent, loving grandson, his boychick Michael (Jesse Adam Eisenberg), who is studying for his bar mitzvah and growing into a worthy opponent over the chessboard.
Michael’s mother, Diane (Susan Warrick Hasho), is a covert to Judaism who arrives to announce the good news that she has been accepted as a doctoral candidate at a psychoanalytic institute.
That evening in 1985 they will gather for a Sabbath dinner attended by Gabe’s son, Diane’s husband and Michael’s father, Stuart (Robert Fass), who is flying up from Washington, where hw has just begun what he regards as “the job of a lifetime,” writing speeches for President Ronald Reagan.
But the dinner that begins so promisingly swiftly degenerates into bitter conflict when Stuart announces that the President is going to appear with the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, at Bitburg and an infuriated Gabe, supported by Michael, demands that Stuart tell the President not to go.
Stuart speaks of political realities. Gabe speaks of Jewish blood spilled, of respect for a father.
“You hold on,” Stuart retorts. “I move on.”
The conflict of “The Gathering” will reach its resolution in the cemetery at Bitburg, where Gabe flies with Michael to make his gesture of opposition, where Stuart and Diane pursue and where all encounter Egon (Peter Hermann), a 24-year old German soldier who embodies bitterness, remorse, responsibility and decency.
“The Gathering,” an attraction of the 25th-anniversary season of the Jewish Repertory Theater, is an ambitious play that entertains as it touches the heart and stimulates the mind.
… Bikel is moving and powerful
… With Tony and Academy Award nominee Theodore Bikel playing Zayde Gabe in a career defining performance, THE GATHERING emerges as a gripping polemical battle of ideas…
…it is Mr. Bikel who energizes THE GATHERING with his own special brand of "menchkeit." His Gabe is a life force of a man.
…If dry-eyed customers remained in the Playhouse 90 theater, I was not among them. THE GATHERING manages to profoundly touch the heart while it provokes the mind.
……(the play) leaves hardly a dry eye in the house.
……(it is) sheer magnificent conviction that Theodore Bikel brings to the grandfather who survived the holocaust. This is being, not acting.