By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
In 2013, Joyce Pulitzer realized a dream she had begun some 15 years previous when she and her friend David Seelig first set pen to paper to begin writing Freedom, a piece intended to celebrate America’s diversity as a welcoming haven for immigrants of all stripes. Her journey included two more writers along the way – Kitty Greenberg and Sean Patterson – who helped shape the final version of the project.
Neither Seelig nor Greenberg lived to see its world premiere opening at Southern Rep, where it was directed by producing artistic director Aimée Hayes.
But given the incendiary political climate regarding border walls and immigration, Pulitzer decided it was, perhaps, an opportune time to have her work resurface once again. She enlisted Le Petit Theatre’s artistic director Maxwell Williams as the director of the revival and contracted with the National World War II Museum to have the work presented on their campus at BB’s Stage Door Canteen.
In addition, Williams offered the role of Yetta (Pulski-Strauss) to Lorraine LeBlanc, the very same actress who starred in the play’s original outing and, to Pulitzer’s delight, she accepted the female lead. Williams called on his longtime collaborator Curtis Billings to tackle the male role in the two-hander, that of Danny (McCabe).
The setting is 1997 in an unspecified government office building a few hours before a naturalization ceremony is to take place. One at a time, the two characters enter into this plain office space with flags and photos of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Through their interaction, they discuss their past. Yetta has found a new life in America as a Holocaust survivor, while Danny has left the only people and culture he knew to strike out a new possiblity here as well.
In this new production, LeBlanc is better than ever with nuances to her character which breathe even better depth into the role. Yetta has risen above the horrors she was forced to endure through the Holocaust and, after arriving in America from war-torn Poland a a Displaced Persons Camp, has made a new life for herself, raising a family and finding her new country as a welcoming haven.
Billings’ role is that of a conflicted Catholic from the conflict-stricken largely Protestant section of Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. Whereas he has sought refuge from the partisan religious and political upheaval of the past, it turns out that he has been both a victim and a perpetrator of violence. Emotionally, he is devastated by what he reveals of his past to Yetta.
Just as she seeks the shelter of acceptance and diversity in the United States, so does he. In her case, she is a victim of unspeakable horrors, who still manages to keep a major secret of her past from her family. In his case, he suffers inconsolable loss too, yet he also admits to being a considerable perpetrator of violence, a secret that could prevent his becoming an American citizen.
Freedom is more than anything else a love letter to all that is possible in the United States and to the strength it receives in its diversity. The juxtaposition of an elderly woman Holocaust survivor with that of a young man emerging from the bloody rancor of the civil war in North Ireland is an interesting choice and is, of course, intentional. In effect, they are the yin and yang of immigration.
The play has strong adult language and themes dealing with violence and death. At times there is humor and a lightness that draws the audience ever more into the stories of these two very different, but very authentic characters. Regrettably, the 90-minute work culminates with a fairly predictable ending that sputters to a stop, leaving several questions unanswered and several areas of contention unresolved.
The lighting by Christopher Hornung and the sound by Christopher Hartman were both fine as was the nicely-designed scenic designs and costumes by Hannah Lax.
Despite the rather convenient tying of loose ends at its conclusion, the work does elicit an emotional connection with its audience and the pithy performances by LeBlanc and Billings make it well worth seeing.
Unfortunately, due to the approach of Tropical Storm and Hurricane Barry, this weekend’s performances were canceled. However, two final shows remain on Friday, July 19 and Saturday, July 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Freedom by Joyce Pultizer, Sean Patterson and the late Kitty Greenberg and David Seelig plays at BB’s Stage Door Canteen at the National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine Street, on Friday, July 19 and Saturday, July 27, at 7:30 p.m. Running time is 90 minutes for the play directed by Maxwell Williams and starring Lorraine LeBlanc and Curtis Billings.