Opportunity Knocks

Great performances keep this Door from slamming shut

The current New Jewish Theatre mounting of James Sherman's From Door to Door is more than a mere play (mere though it is): this production is a veritable magic act. Director Edward Coffield and his three actresses are trying to palm off a platter of finger food as prime rib. That they almost succeed is to the credit of all involved.

From Door to Door is yet another one of those paint-by-numbers, feel-good chronicles that today's theatergoers can't seem to get enough of. Here we meet three generations of women in a Chicago family. Grandma, Mom and Daughter never do make it to an Oprah taping, but her presence hovers over the stage — the viewer is expected to laugh and cry and feel and share. The script travels through much of the twentieth century, capturing poignant Kodak moments as Mary Goodman, her immigrant mother Bessie and her rebellious, independent daughter Debbie are witnesses to history. It's an easy kind of writing in which the viewer is expected to add emotion to scenes that don't provide much on their own.

"This is a sad time for everybody," Mary spells out to her daughter in November 1963.

"Because President Kennedy was shot?" Debbie dutifully asks.

"That's right," Mom confirms, as if the question itself wasn't enough.

A decade later Mom innocently asks, "There are going to be Nazis in Skokie?" And that's it; those nasty neo-Nazis are never mentioned again. Because we all know that the neo-Nazis will indeed descend on Skokie, the script apparently doesn't have to deal with them. They're just another memory-button to be punched as the story proceeds on its laugh-a-minute, hanky-wringing way. This approach to writing is the theater's version of a PowerPoint presentation. But the history here merely provides a framework. The recurring theme concerns daughters who morph into their mothers. It's a fairly obvious trope, but at least it lets us know that the play is about something.

And yet, there is much to be admired in this staging. Robin Weatherall's sound design sets the evening's tone with music reminiscent of Paul Bowles' haunting score for The Glass Menagerie; that association alone gives the production a sense of heft. Glenn Dunn's lighting design, especially during the scene transitions, bathes the stage in reflective hues. But mostly it's the cast, who have been shepherded with a sense of affection by director Coffield, that holds the viewer's attention.

With her clipped sentences and reversed syntax, Bessie reeks of the cliché. In lesser hands, this immigrant grandmother could be the ultimate stereotype, yet Donna Weinsting manages to convince us that this crusty old gal is both original and surprising. We hang on every word she utters, even when we can predict what she's about to say.

As Debbie, Michelle Hand is astonishing. She too refuses to accept this play's surface manner. Watch, for instance, when Debbie discovers that her mother has read Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Hand plays that moment for more than it's worth; her eyes fill with anger and hurt. This performance belies the axiom that in order for an actor to be great, she has to have a great part; From Door to Door is far from great, yet Hand's portrayal is an act of sheer will.

If Michele Burdette Elmore is not as persuasive in the pivotal role of Bessie's daughter (and Debbie's mother), perhaps it's because her character is the most obviously written. Although Sherman based Mary on his own mother, by evening's end she has devolved into a whine who sounds suspiciously like Mary Wickes. Elmore might have a more satisfying time if she would stop investing every single line with an attitude.

Late in the evening we learn that Mom is a fan of Butterflies Are Free, the gossamer-thin movie about another overprotective mother. It may well be that From Door to Door is out to entertain the same kind of audience that was amused by that 1972 trifle. Trifling, this play surely is. But there's also some dazzling sleight-of-hand here that you might remember long after From Door to Door has vanished from memory.