“Isn’t it OK to sometimes be selfish?” asks a character in Anna Ziegler’s cunningly devised The Wanderers. With Amber McGinnis’ discerning, sympathetic direction, Theater J’s production provides plenty to relish, then ponder, in responding to that question.
In The Wanderers, five restless searchers are seeking their own personal land of milk and honey and happiness. The play focuses on two New York couples living in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At first glance, the couples could not be more different.
One is a worldly, long-married couple who have been together since they were teenagers in love. They are a talkative Abe (Alexander Strain as a controlling, rigid man full of self-doubt) and a chatty Sophia (Kathryn Tkel as a vision of hugs to give and no one to give them to). Both are writers, about 40 years old, non-observant Jews living a good though stressful life; they have two young children and books to write.
Abe has had early success; Sophia, not so much. That grates on them and it shows in their body language. This is a couple that discusses the vagaries of novelist Philip Roth as a way to connect rather than through warm hugs.
The second couple are tradition-observing Satmar Hasidic Jews, together through an arranged marriage: Esther (a resplendent, generously expressive Dina Thomas) and Schmuli (Jamie Smithson with unyielding male bearing concealing a more tender nature). The audience first comes to know them as they embark together innocently on their wedding night, two individuals trying to figure out how they will fit together. Warm laughter rippled throughout the theater at the sight and words of these newlyweds.
But, there is this, too. Esther does not want to be straightjacketed into living the same way as the generations of women that preceded her. She has a vision of a personal awakening to propel her through life. What might that cost her?
There is one additional critical character in The Wanderers. Julia is a married with children, high-profile movie actor with a huge following (an appealing Tessa Klein bringing a graciousness to her character). With Julia’s arrival comes a risky, digital connection with Abe, who thinks Julia is the most beautiful woman in the world and beyond his reach. Abe desires Julia as a spark to re-energize his tedious life. But, at what cost? And why would Julia find Abe of interest?
With Julia’s arrival, The Wanderers becomes a tense family drama. The playwright plants a possible link between the two married couples. Is it real?
As a fearless storyteller, Ziegler doesn’t shy away from making uncompromising observations about a woman’s life within the traditional-focused Satmar Hasidic community. She does not hide away from depicting dire consequences for Esther.
Andrew R. Cohen’s scenic design is minimal — full of curves, places for characters to sit and stand with a light color palette. Key set pieces are dozens of white and clear hanging pendant lighting instruments. At first, the pendants seem merely background objects, but as the production progresses, they take on a magical air as if we are in the midst of a nighttime winter sky. Laura J. Eckelman is the lighting designer. Heather Lockard’s costume design is most visually pronounced in Esther and Schmuli’s modest attire.
Theater J’s production is formidable. (Do be aware, there is use of untranslated Yiddish and Hebrew prayers at times). The Wanderers will leave audiences with plenty to discuss after the performance. I overheard some audience members deep in conversation, asking each other if the characters did the right thing. Some chatted about the fluid aspects of the play’s final scene, while others wondered what might be real and what might have been a dream.
Take it in, discuss it, then decide what choices you might make if in the same situations as Ziegler placed her characters. That makes for a great theater experience.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
The Wanderers plays through March 15, 2020, at Theater J in the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.
Note: Sound Design by Matthew Nielson, Dialect Coach Nancy Krebs