Stage Left: We are the Levinsons has humour and heart

Play about trials of a Jewish family dives into multitude of topical social issues

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Early on in We are the Levinsons, we get a small clue that one character won’t be broad-minded when it comes to sexual politics.

Lenny, an elderly Jewish dad, declares himself flummoxed by the notion of gay marriage. “What’s next,” he says, “cats becoming dogs?” Such an utterance is provocative, especially these days — and yet it reflects an attitude that persists in some quarters.

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Playwright Wendy Kout’s 2017 play — a mix of comedy and drama — just opened at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue. Produced by the synagogue’s resident theatre company, Bema Productions, We are the Levinsons dives into a barrel-load of social issues including transsexualism, Jewish culture, dementia, death and dying.

This well-intentioned play has humour and heart — Kout’s willingness to unflinchingly confront uncomfortable situations is admirable. Some might find the script owes too great a debt to Neil Simon (and perhaps Hallmark movies). Still, We are the Levinsons is replete with humanity and Kout is skilled in the one-liner department.

Most of the cast had good moments during Thursday’s opening-night performance, particularly the ebullient Rosemary Jeffery as Grace, a transsexual caregiver.

Threading together the diverse story elements in We are the Levinsons is the theme of fractious family relationships. In this play, two generations of mothers and daughters struggle to get along. Lil (Susan Wilkey) loves her daughter Rosie (Christine Upright), a divorced TV writer who just lost her job. Yet Lil can’t help nagging her daughter about the way she dresses, her hairdo and her lack of a romantic partner. And Rosie, now being middle-aged, cannot resist reacting to mom’s snipes like a petulant teen.

This family dynamic is repeated with Rosie and her own 20ish daughter Sara (Danielle Weisz). Meanwhile, Lil’s husband Lenny (David Biltek) valiantly attempts to hold everything together, urging his family to transcend the bickering and reach out to one another.

Tragedy strikes quickly. Lil dies of a heart attack and Lenny (who eventually believes he receives visits from his deceased wife) slips into dementia. Struggling to look after her father, Rosie hires Grace. Big-hearted, empathetic and strong, she’s the ultimate caregiver. However Lenny — partly as a result of his disease — reacts badly to Grace, declaring her sexual choice an aberration. She takes the job anyway… and fireworks ensue.

There’s an awful amount going on here — at times the play can seem like a dog’s breakfast. Happily, the melodrama is leavened by zippy quips. For instance, after his wife’s funeral, Lenny notes: “No one appreciates anyone until they’re gone. I can’t tell you how much I miss Jay Leno.”

Upright is a strong presence as Rosie, although unfortunately her overdone New Yorker accent appeared to channel Laverne DeFazio. A well-cast Biltek found Lenny’s mensch-like bluster, notwithstanding a tendency to blurt out lines in an unnuanced fashion — something that diminished an interesting character’s complexity.

The character of Grace is perhaps a bit too good to be true. True, the caregiver has the odd flaw, but mostly she’s super-humanly loving and lion-hearted — with a touch of Mother Theresa tossed in. To her credit, Jeffery makes it work; her Grace seems like a real human being. Her best scene was Grace’s tear-filled gratitude upon discovering the family has rewarded her hard work with a generous surprise — a truly touching moment.

Zelda Dean provides clear direction and a brisk pace. Anne Swannell’s set of a middle-class condo features clever cut-away sections revealing a palm-tree-lined beach. We are the Levinsons continues to May 23.

One of the Victoria theatre season’s happy surprises was the high quality of The King and I, a touring musical that played the Royal Theatre in January.

Now Henry Kolenko, the show’s presenter, is back with another splashy musical, Jersey Boys, playing the Royal May 28 to June 2. The original Broadway hit, chronicling the adventures of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, won a fistful of awards in 2006 including a Tony for best musical.

Like The King and I, this touring show is another big production event. There are 49 people in the travelling company, including 19 performers. The show, featuring 33 songs, requires 615 lighting cues and 196 costumes. Another fun fact: the character of Mary Delgado calls for a super-fast costume change — the actor has just nine seconds to leave her prop car and don a robe to sing My Eyes Adored You.

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