For many producing companies, the term community theater is an insult.
Rightly or wrongly, it evokes images of lightweight comedies performed by unpaid performers whose love of theater exceeds their talents, experience and ability.
It's also an apt and positive description for The Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh, a small, local Equity company. Its productions such as the current "Lebensraum," showcase community theater at its best -- plays that represent the ideas, issues, history and culture of a community not only celebrating its traditions and heritage but educating a larger audience and opening up a dialogue with them.
Israel Horovitz's "Lebensraum" is an ideal example.
A what-if fantasy, "Lebensraum," which is being performed through March 27, begins with the chancellor of the German Republic inviting six million Jews to move to and become citizens of Germany. The number symbolizes the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazi Holocaust.
It's an invitation that Germans and Jews around the world react to -- some with interest and support, and others with a rage and paranoia that's at once irrational and completely understandable.
Horovitz's 100-minute intermissionless drama creates some 40 characters to illustrate, with wit and poignancy, the many facets of this experiment in reconciliation.
The spine of the play focuses on a working-class family from Massachusetts with a teen-age son, a working-class German family with a teen-age daughter, a concentration camp survivor, a pair of Israeli activists and a gay French couple, as well as journalists, ministers and rabbis, teachers, politicians, bureaucrats, political pundits and just plain folks.
To succeed, "Lebensraum" relies largely on the ensemble work of its cast.
A solid and accomplished ensemble of three inventive performers -- Erika Cuenca, Joel Ripka and the chameleon-like Martin Giles -- play all 40. With little more than adjustment of voice and postures and a few props and costume bits, they conjure distinct people from an amazing variety of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and attitudes.
Director Jonathan Rest and set designer Tony Ferrieri offer creative support -- most expressively with Ferrieri's set, which literally opens up to suggest both past certainties and future possibilities.
Horovitz's play wrestles fairly with complex, highly emotional issues without relying on simple answers or a definitive happy ending for a proposition that lacks an easy solution. Suspicion and resentment remain.
You might not agree with all of the attitudes and biases explored, but you'll recognize their foundations. And the play does give them a voice that could begin a dialogue.
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