This Is What They Sang
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 19, 2010
Part of the 1st Irish Festival, Gavin Kostick's This Is What We Sang is the story of four generations of a family that is rooted in Belfast, though also representative of the migration patterns of the 20th century; only one member in the four generations is actually born and lives her whole life in Northern Ireland. The others come in and out of Belfast for the array of reasons that spark immigration and emigration—seeking economic opportunity, making a good marriage, escaping the bombings of World War II, later reconnecting with and revisiting heritage—and one you might not expect to see conjoined with Northern Ireland: fleeing pogroms. Because this family is part of Belfast's small—currently fewer than 100 members—Jewish community.
The meaning and centrality of the characters' Jewishness is a question that hovers around the piece. And although many surface signifiers point to the play's being steeped in and centered around that Jewish identity—it is, after all, a site-specific piece performed in a synagogue (premiered in the Belfast Synagogue and presented in New York at Tribeca's Synagogue for the Arts), set on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur, circling around questions of atonement, and featuring a cantor as one of its characters—at its heart, This Is What We Sang is really about the kinds of secrets and betrayals that can affect any family: the secrets that families keep and dole out stingily and under duress, the secrets that can cause rifts that stretch down through generations, and the sheer ordinariness and pettiness of those secrets. The concepts of atonement, repentance, and regret—themes of the Jewish holiday—act as a starting point that allows Kostick to get his characters thinking and reflecting on their lives, but the conflicts, the lies, the betrayals that warp relationships—and the historical events that reshape lives—have in the end very little to do with the characters' faith.
The family history goes like this: Lev, the patriarch, and his brother, Saul, leave Latvia at the end of the 19th century, bound for America; they run out of money and end up in Hull in northern England. Saul, a cantor, cares only about his music, but Lev is a businessman who can't find work in Hull, so they follow a tip to Belfast, where Lev becomes the business manager for a cabinetmaker. Though he's happy to date Belfast girls, both Catholic and Protestant, when he's ready to settle down, his rabbi introduces him to two sisters from Leeds. One of them, Hannah, becomes his wife; the other, Lotte (who doesn't appear in the play), marries Saul—though Hannah secretly carries a torch for Saul from the moment she meets him. Hannah and Lev have two sons and a much younger daughter, Sissy; the boys, at university when World War II breaks out, are sent to America, where they remain. Lev dies not long after the war, with all his business successes wiped out; Sissy remains in Belfast, unmarried, and takes care of Hannah until Hannah's death. Estranged from her brothers, she nonetheless keeps in contact with their children and grandchildren, and when she is dying, she summons one of her great-nephews, Bill, from America to hear her story—and Bill, having just lost his Wall Street job and being somewhat at loose ends, goes to Belfast and hears it all, sparking some emotional realizations of his own. Yes, the deathbed confession as a means of bringing out a family secret is a little bit contrived, especially given how distanced (in both space and familial connection) the recipient of the secret is. But the piece overall is simple enough to stand up to some contrivances without feeling completely forced.
Structured as a series of interlocking monologues from Lev, Hannah, Sissy, and Bill—with Saul's singing, evoking both traditional Jewish and traditional Irish music, as a counterpoint and transitional device—and lightly staged (by director Paula McFetridge) on the synagogue's bimah (the platform from which the Torah is read during a service), the piece shines in its performances. Although the characters are family, each also has a background, a history—even an accent—all his or her own (again, only Sissy is Irish from birth to death; Lev's accent is Eastern European tinged with Irish, Hannah's from the northern England of her upbringing, Bill's brusquely New York). And while the characters don't ever directly speak to each other, the play of reactions in facial expressions and body language is fascinating to watch, from Ali White's determinedly upright posture even as Lev confesses things Hannah desperately doesn't want to know, to Paul Kennedy's impatient, restless physicality as Bill, instantly recognizable as from a different generation—a different world—than the others.
There's no question that the site-specificity adds a layer of resonance, a connection to the characters' faith and community that might not otherwise be so easily felt. But I'm not sure it matters—in the end, the play is mostly about family, how it can destroy, deform, and, just occasionally, heal.