Memories lost and found, tragedy and forgetting, fact and fiction, dreams and reality: it all comes to a head in Andy and the Shadows at Theater J.
Written by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth and directed by Daniella Topol, Andy and the Shadows is part of Theater J’s second annual Locally Grown Festival, which brings to the stage new works by local playwrights.
The story centers around the Glickstein family from the perspective of neurotic, angst-ridden Andy – the middle child of his Holocaust survivor parents. Each of the three children choose to deal with their parents’ dark history in different ways. Andy chooses to wrestle with his family’s ghosts at home.
One of the most exciting elements to staging a new work is the chance to experiment with storytelling, and Topol’s inventive staging does just that. The story flings us back and forth between Andy’s dreams (or are they memories?) and reality, and the set’s versatility allows for both realism and whimsy.
At the same time, one of the most common issues with new works is the need to cut painfully personal and meaningful moments on behalf of the whole. I don’t question the semi-autobiographical play’s depth, but I do question its length (over 2 1/2 hours) and whether many of the scenes are necessary to tell the essence of the story.
As Andy, Alexander Strain does an excellent job showing us the angst of a young man grappling with his family history; but Act I doesn’t take us much further with him. Even with Strain’s impressive energy, Andy doesn’t have a strong or obvious character arc for the first two hours, and the resulting shouts with no results can wear out an audience very quickly.
In a haunting performance by Jennifer Mendenhall, Andy’s mother Raya permeates the story; and as a younger, more angelic memory of Raya, Colleen Delany gives the character even more tenacity and power. Raya storms into Andy’s dreams, day job, childhood memories, and present anxiety. As she is the reason he can and can’t grow up, her story and secrets become the driving force of the play.
The rest of the ensemble does well with Roth’s wordy script; but their story-lines simply don’t hold the same weight as the relationship between Andy and his mother. Whether or not the playwright, director, or audience wants it this way, it’s her story. It’s her secrets we want Andy to uncover. Her dramatic fallout with Andy in Act II is the climax of the show, even if we still have 40 minutes left until curtain.
As a result other parts of the story fall flat, especially in Act II when the play digresses at both the beginning and end. When Roth focuses on memory and how we corrupt, devalue, and overvalue it, he is in his element. Focusing on other themes like story-telling and rites of passage nearly capsizes this already full show.
Throughout Andy and the Shadows, Andy fears his mother will take over and control all his projects. She does exactly that in her son’s life, and in the play as a whole. Perhaps Andy is wise to deal with all his demons, but the show would benefit from focusing on hers.
Andy and the Shadows runs now through May 5th at Theater J, located at 1529 16th Street NW, Washington DC 20036. Closest Metro: Dupont Circle (Red Line). For more information call (202) 777-3230.