Sharyn Rothstein’s World Premiere “All the Days” at McCarter — “Finding a Way to Live With the People Who Drive You Crazy”
MOTHER-DAUGHTER MATTERS: Ruth (Caroline Aaron, left) and her daughter Miranda (Stephanie Janssen) are completely bonded, and in conflict on almost every possible issue, in Sharyn Rothstein’s world premiere family “dramedy,” All the Days, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 29. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Dysfunctional families have always provided material for great literature and theater. From the ancient Greeks—Odysseus and the battling family of Olympian gods, the Trojan War, the families of Agamemnon and Oedipus—though the great tragedies may have played out in the global, public sphere, the issues always had their roots in family conflict. From Shakespeare’s squabbling families, sometimes tragic and sometimes comical, all the way down to Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Sam Shepard and American playwrights up to the present, TV dramas, sit-coms and movies—families never cease to frustrate us, fascinate us, and deliver all manner of suffering and entertainment.
All the Days, Sharyn Rothstein’s new play debuting at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 29, successfully mines this vein of comic and dramatic material (“dramedy,” the playwright labels it) with a particular focus on the conflict and connection between an aging Jewish mother and her adult daughter.
Set in mother Ruth Zweigman’s Long Island kitchen before moving to her daughter Miranda’s Philadelphia apartment, All the Days offers a collection of stock characters, a barrage of one-liners that could be designed for the laugh track and the kinds of situations in fourteen different scenes that will be familiar to sit-com audiences.
As the play continues, however, through its two and a half hours over two acts, it becomes clear that Ms. Rothstein is working with deeper purposes. The comedy never subsides, but the realistic dialogue, the developing characterizations and the emotional intensity of the relationships all combine to create a poignant tale of loss and love, of faith and forgiveness, as All the Days transcends its sit-com-ish trappings.
In her mid-thirties and her second season writing for the USA television drama Suits, Ms. Rothstein, also the author of several acclaimed plays, knows her craft. Her seven characters are finely drawn, thoroughly realistic. As their stories, wants and needs emerge, these complex, brave, funny characters take on a rich three-dimensionality and universality in their detailed individuality.
“Mothers and daughters, if they can stand it, should see the play together and it will be really meaningful,” Ms. Rothstein stated in an interview on the McCarter website. Whether female or not, Jewish or not, audiences will relate to these thoroughly human characters in both comical and serious moments.
Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director and director of this production, has assembled an ideal cast and design team to create the world of the Zweigmans and bring these characters to life on the Berlind stage. This director and her seasoned actors have honed the comic timing to perfection. The action moves swiftly from scene to scene, and the balance between comic and serious is just right to maximize the humor and the poignancy in these characters and their troubled relationships. The play is long, and, with its numerous scenes and obligatory one-on-one encounters for all of the characters, occasionally seems to lose focus on its central conflict. But these seven complex people are indeed all interesting and worthy of development, and the evening speeds by.
Miranda (Stephanie Janssen) is the central character here, but it’s her mother Ruth (Caroline Aaron) who gets the most attention. Outspoken, unfiltered, overbearing and overweight, Ruth, who has diabetes, is recuperating from eye surgery at the start of the play. Miranda, slim, healthy, earnest, a social worker, is visiting in hopes of helping her mother, and the opening scene reveals how difficult that will be for both mother and daughter. Miranda, a single mother, is converting from Judaism to Christianity, though her 13-year-old son Jared (Matthew Kuenne) is preparing for his bar mitzvah.
In a moment of weakness, Miranda invites her mother to come visit, and the second scene moves to Miranda’s Philadelphia apartment, where the complications multiply.
Complication number one is Stew (Justin Hagan), Miranda’s boyfriend of two years, though still unknown to Ruth, who combines the best intentions towards Miranda and the rest of the family with an inability to fit in or fully comprehend this alien world of the Zweigmans. He nonetheless takes a liking to Ruth and her acerbic wit and arranges a date for her with a suave, sophisticated, African-American herbalist named Baptiste (Raphael Nash Thompson).
Miraculously, the date goes well, despite Ruth’s repeated attempts at self-sabotage. On the following night, by the end of the first of two acts, Ruth’s high-maintenance, materialistic, meddlesome sister Monica (Leslie Ayvazian) arrives. Then, who should appear at the front door but Ruth’s ex-husband Del (Ron Orbach), hoping to reinstate himself in the marriage. The dramatic ingredients are almost complete.
Miranda’s relationship with her mother remains the central challenge as past issues emerge and their bitter resentments clash with their intense attachment. Also driving the plot forward are several additional engaging dramatic questions: Miranda’s problematic relationships with her son and with her boyfriend; Ruth’s future with not one but two men, who suddenly enter—in Del’s case re-enter—her life; Del’s plight, as he faces sickness and old age, desperately seeking his family’s acceptance and forgiveness; and Monica, weighing in with her sister’s family, as she delays returning to her own unfaithful husband at home.
Ruth, in conversation with her grandson early in the play, describes the traditional Zweigman family dynamic, which foreshadows the second act scenario at Miranda’s apartment and highlights a certain paradoxical universality. “RUTH: You know it used to be families all lived together. Grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles, all on the same block, the same house even. JARED: That sounds claustrophobic. RUTH: It was worse than claustrophobic! Everyone was completely miserable. But at least they were together.”
Ms. Aaron’s Ruth is a powerful force on stage from start to finish—very funny, dynamic, larger than life, but completely credible in this infuriatingly lovable character. Ms. Janssen rises convincingly to the challenges of the role of the earnest protagonist, struggling to do the right thing as a daughter, mother and lover. Ms. Ayvazian’s Monica is a tour de force, perhaps only a supporting role here, but clearly a formidable counterpart to her older sister Ruth.
The four male characters, though less prominent than the women, are all distinct, memorable individuals. Mr. Orbach presents a sympathetic, wining portrayal of the erring, loving husband facing the final chapter of his life with honesty, remorse, a rich sense of humor and a need to re-connect with his estranged family. Mr. Kuenne is excellent as the independent-minded, outspoken bar mitzvah boy. Mr. Hagan’s Stew and Mr. Thompson’s Baptiste, both outsiders to the strange world of the Zweigman family, provide valuable perspective and a breath or two of fresh air to the proceedings. Both present interesting characters and maintain the fine balance between the comic and the serous in dealing with their own challenges and the difficulties of the protagonists.
Daniel Ostling’s thoroughly realistic, detailed set takes the audience rapidly, seamlessly from Ruth’s cramped 1970s style Long Island kitchen to Miranda’s spacious apartment in Philadelphia. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design complements the creation of the world of this family and its dysfunctions, and helps to move the action to additional settings in a restaurant and a hotel bar. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are on target and effective in helping to create these seven delightfully different, idiosyncratic characters.
Ms. Rothstein has stated that her play is about “finding a way to live with the people who drive you crazy.” That is certainly the challenge for the characters of All the Days, and it might simply describe the daunting, universal challenge of family life. Though even at the end of the play the path forward for Ms. Rothstein’s anguished characters is anything but clear, All the Days assures us that love and humor will prevail.