Eleanor Handley, Will Little and Michael Satow in Florida Studio Theatre’s Jericho.
For many of us, once the first few days and months after the 9/11 attacks passed, we returned as much as possible to our normal lives (aside from dealing with tighter airport security). But for those who lost loved ones that day, or were themselves survivors of the World Trade Center catastrophe, such relative complacency is unattainable.
That’s certainly the case with the central character of Jack Canfora’s new play Jericho, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre in a “rolling” world premiere in concert with the National New Play Network. Beth (an engaging Eleanor Handley) is first seen in a session with her shrink (Will Little), but she actually speaks directly to us, freely admitting that even before losing her husband, Alec, in the attacks she was something of a mess. Now, she confesses, she’s on a “shitload” of meds, none of which seem to be doing her much good. Not only is she unable, four years after the tragedy, to move on fully with her relationship with the likable and caring Ethan (Michael Satow), she actually sees her shrink (who’s supposed to be a middle-aged Korean woman) as the lost Alec (also played by Little).
And Alec turns up other places, too, most notably at the Thanksgiving Day dinner Ethan invites her to at his mother’s house. You thought your Thanksgiving family dinner was bad? It can’t hold a candle to this one; not only is Mom (Diane Ciesla) a prototypical Jewish mother trying to run her grown sons’ lives for them, but Ethan’s brother, Josh (Mark Light-Orr), is himself a 9/11 survivor whose guilt feelings have led him to ponder a move to Israel, which is breaking up his marriage to his more conventional American Jewish wife, Jessica (Rachel Moulton). Oh, and did we mention that the dinner is taking place in the Biblically named town of Jericho, Long Island, and that Beth’s ancestry happens to be part Palestinian?
It’s a setup ripe not only for drama but for a good deal of humor, too, and Canfora packs his play with guaranteed laugh lines—some of which are hit unnecessarily hard by the cast. Overall, it feels (at least from where I sat) that the actors are pitching both their comedic and dramatic energies too high. There’s already enough tension of both varieties in the play; director Kate Alexander and her cast don’t need to shout.
That said, this Jericho story has a lot of power on its own. It may be hard for us, as well as for his family, to accept Josh’s life-changing choices, but there’s no doubt he’s struggling, and we can feel for him even as Jessica becomes increasingly vocal with her understandable anger (Moulton has some of her best moments as the wine keeps getting poured at that dinner). We want to feel a glimmer of hope for his finding some kind of happiness, and the same is certainly true for Handley’s Beth. As their story plays out against the backdrop of a huge abstract painting (one that could at times be seen as a sunset, at others as a conflagration), we’re reminded that the repercussions of a terrible event can at once both spread very wide and hit awfully close to home.
Jericho continues on FST’s mainstage through June 9; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.