Review by Arthur Dorman
Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Since their commissioned play The Magic Dreidels premiered in 2000, Six Points Theater (which prior to this fall was known as Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company) has annually staged a Chanukah-themed show for young audiences, with most performances scheduled for school groups and a limited number of weekend shows for families—or the young at heart. Over the past two decades, several different plays have been mounted in an annual rotation.
This year, Six Points Theater commissioned playwright Hayley Finn to create a new play to add to that roster. The result is Chanukah in the Dark, a sweet, if predictable, play with music about a ten-year-old girl named Max whose Chanukah celebration looks like it is about to tank until she learns, with the help of her Grandma, Grandpa, and big brother, the true meaning of the holiday.
Max is spending Chanukah with her grandparents while her parents are travelling, and she is totally fine with that. Her Grandma makes stupendous potato latkes and jelly donuts, two scrumptious treats served on the holiday, and her big brother Sasha, whom she adores, will join them as soon as he winds up his first term at college. Then a terrible storm causes the power to go out. No electric stove, no electric fryer means no latkes or donuts. Worse, the storm has stranded Sasha, and it looks like he won't make it home after all.
Max is devastated, but her resourceful—and completely delightful as played by Sally Wingert and David Coral—grandparents aren't about to let Max's Chanukah be ruined. Max scoffs when her Grandma asserts that Chanukah isn't about presents and food, but about family and miracles, but before the night is through she learns to appreciate the miracles taking place all around her, along with the true meaning of Chanukah.
The show has several original songs, all based on different Chanukah themes: "Eight" (as in the eight day-long holiday), "Latkes", "Donuts," "Spin the Dreidel," and a spritely title tune. The songs, lyrics by Finn and music by Adam Wernick, are all very chipper and add zest to the show, with the charming sing-song quality and simple, repetitive lyrics often found in holiday songs intended for young children. With a cast of four, nothing approaches a production number, though a parade with clanging household objects is amusing.
Hayley Finn has set Chanukah in the Dark in the present, and Max is a pretty typical ten-year-old who expects things to work out the way they are planned. Sulia Rose Altenberg starts the play off as Max, and at first glance we know she is no child actor, but a fully-grown adult who hopes to pass for a ten-year-old in overalls and pigtails. Surprise—within minutes, Altenberg pulls it off! Her mannerisms, voice tones, and her point of view, as created by playwright Finn, conspire to create, before our eyes, a believable ten-year-old—at least for the fifty-five minutes it takes to run through the show.
Max's Grandma and Grandpa are no old-world immigrant bubbe and zayde, but up to date, snappy dressers (Annie Cady designed the costumes) who are wry observers of the latest trends. David Coral has a gleam in his eye that would make any grandchild want to curl up and listen to him tell a tale, while Sally Wingert's wry voice asserts her benevolent authority peppered with a sharp sense of humor. Sulia Rose Altenberg, David Coral, and Any child growing up with these two as Sally Wingert Photo by Sarah Whiting
grandparents would have a big head start in life.
As for big brother Sasha—spoiler alert—he does make it home after all, adding that to the roster of miracles. On opening night, however, actor Ben Shaw was sidelined, so the role was played by understudy Laura Stearns, changing Sasha from a big brother to a big sister. We were informed that Stearns had just recently joined the company but, pro that she is, you would never have known it, and the loving relationship between the siblings adds to the warmth already in abundance on stage.
Director Jennie Ward focuses on the playfulness written into the piece, keeping things lighthearted, even when Max is most discouraged. Rick Polenek designed a simple but effective setting, backed by an abstract mural in muted tones that seems suited to these hip grandparents, revealing behind it the skyline of their city. Chanukah is, after all, the Festival of Light, and Todd M. Reemtsma's lighting design provides a range of shadings to bring that to fruition. Anita Kelling's sound design affirms the feeling of being homebound on a stormy night. Projections by Tom Burgess depict the sky above, bringing another dimension to the production.
The miracles Max counts include some that are natural occurrences that nonetheless feel like miracles because of their timing, some that may or may not only be in her imagination—though, isn't imagination itself a miracle? —and some that are the workings of the heart, such as love, generosity and belonging. Of note, there is no mention of God, or any form of higher power as the source of these miracles, nor anything that would contradict those who would make that attribution, leaving the play's moral framework accessible to a wide range of audiences, from the devout to the secular.
Max's understanding of Chanukah travels a long way from her starting point, with its focus on food and presents. This simple, but never tired, moral, that the really good things in life don't come from a store or a deep fryer, is certainly a worthy one for any of us, whatever our faith. It is a gentle, heartwarming visit with a family that welcomes us to share their gift for drawing light out of the darkness—the perfect gift for any occasion.
Chanukah in the Dark runs through December 17, 2021, at the Six Points Theater Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. The remaining public performances are December 10, 12, and 17. Tickets: $24.00. For information and tickets, please call 651-647-4315 or visit sixpointstheater.org.
Book and Lyrics: Hayley Finn; Composer and Music Director: Adam Wernick; Director: Jennie Ward; Scenic and Props Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Annie Cady; Lighting Design: Todd. M. Reemtsma; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Projections Design: Tom Burgess; Stage manager: Miranda Shunkwiler.
Cast: Sulia Rose Altenberg (Max), David Coral (Grandpa), Ben Shaw (Sasha), Sally Wingert (Grandma).