August 17, 2019

Theater: ‘Leipzig’ weaves heartfelt Alzheimer’s tale

Wendy Graf was at the women’s group at her synagogue when she discovered that a number of her colleagues were the children of Holocaust survivors. She became fascinated with the repercussions of the tragedy on their lives, but put aside the subject as she wrote “Lessons,” a play about a widower who decides to have a bar mitzvah. More recently, a person close to her developed Alzheimer’s disease. The synchronicity of memory loss with so-called “second-generation” syndrome provided the raw material for Graf’s new play, “Leipzig,” the latest offering of the West Coast Jewish Theater, now playing at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.

The veteran actress Salome Jens so deeply embodies Eva, the Alzheimer-ridden Holocaust survivor, that one could swear she herself had the disease. Her performance is one of great subtlety — the slightest head movement, the slightest flick of her hand, and, above all, the blankness of her stare conveying the hopelessness of the illness.

She wears an ethereal nightgown, appropriate for a woman who seems to shimmer, flicker and fade in the air, like the distant circus sounds that come to her as she recalls her childhood in Germany.
Unfortunately, as compelling as this performance is, as well as that of Eva’s husband, George, played by Mitchell Ryan, the part of the daughter, Helen, played by Mimi Kennedy, does not always work. There is no question that Graf’s storyline ably demonstrates the generational clash between the parents and the baby boomer daughter, but Helen’s frequent on-the-nose psychobabble and her quips with Jesus present a tonal and thematic disconnect.

Eva and George belong in a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller play, while Helen does not. Eva reminds one of a nuanced Blanche Dubois, delusional though without the flamboyance, and George could be the missing father in Miller’s “The Price.” Indeed, the set’s toppled lamps, empty shelves and hanging bicycle, which create what Graf calls “an attic of your mind,” seem right out of “The Price,” just as the Kristallnacht theme echoes Miller’s “Broken Glass.”

Perhaps the disconnect arises because Graf is influenced by Tony Kushner. One can see this echo in her ruminations on mortality spiced with angelology. It’s just that the make-believe Jesus in “Leipzig,” wearing long locks and dressed in white robe like a yogi or martial arts guru, offers a comic relief that serves less to entertain and more to detract from the seriousness of the play.

Which is not to suggest that Graf does not know her material. She studied the Holocaust carefully, and her naming of Helen after the character’s deceased grandmother is a nice touch that rings true. There is no denying the poignancy of the subject, and this play represents a heartfelt attempt at capturing it.

“Leipzig” runs through Dec. 10 at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre, Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.

For more information, call (323) 650-7777.