Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 23, 2009
Kaddish (or The Key in the Window), an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg's poetic prayer to his mother performed by Donnie Mather, opens with a sterling image. Mather, dressed in a button down shirt, slightly short gray slacks, and black shoes, enters walking backward, in seeming slow motion, carrying a chair. The stage is bare but for a white window covered with stretched canvas hanging at the back of the stage and a copper colored lamp at the opposite end. He places the chair center stage, walks—still slowly—to the lamp and turns the knob, at which point the lamp and the stage lights rise He looks at the audience for a moment, as if surveying the landscape, choosing the words he will use to tell his tale.
The words he uses are Ginsberg's and the tale he tells is of Ginsberg's mother, Naomi, a woman who arrived in the United States as a little girl, became a schoolteacher, a wife and a mother, and succumbed to a series of mental breakdowns for which she received treatments in the form of medication, insulin shock therapy, electro shock therapy, and finally a lobotomy, for which Ginsberg himself signed. When she died, Ginsberg had just received acclaim for his first poem, Howl. His grief was severe, and when he learned that the Kaddish, an important Jewish mourner's prayer, was not recited for her, he channeled that grief into his own Kaddish.
Mather clearly relates to the material. He speaks with a clear voice that conveys the understanding of a man suffering the loss of a loved one. The poem is full of stark and vivid images of his mother's arrival in the United States ("eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America...struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what—toward Newark, toward...hand-churned ice cream in the backroom on musty brown floor boards...") to descriptions of her treatments ("now lost in Greystone ward—new shock for her—Electricity, following the 40 insulin. And Metrazol had made her fat.") to her shocking appearance and behavior ("...I thought she was trying to make me come lay her...lay back on huge bed,... dress up round her hips,...scars of operations...stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers...") Mather delivers these unflinching lines in a mournful tone that brings dignity to the memory of a person suffering from a humiliating illness.
He also creates effective images to support the emotional nuances of those words. Near the end of the play he lays garments on the stage—photos, pill bottles, a robe, shoes, a hospital robe, a basket, and a dress. The pill bottles in particular, laid out in a long row, elicited a laugh from the audience and in the laugh, Mather provides a release that imbues these objects with a deep connection with a loved one.
If there is a weakness in the show it stems from the atonal emotional rhythm and a lack of musicality in the delivery. Mather never strays from the plaintive sadness at the root of Ginsberg's loss. The Kaddish, though, comes after the mourner has gradually lessened the intensity of his grief. He has survived and is celebrating God and life, in all their tragedy and glory. By delving deeper into the grief and higher in celebration, he might have come closer to the chaos of the experience.
But for this, we have to go back to the initial image of Mather backing onto the stage. Grief is not entered into voluntarily. It is a shock that stops us in our tracks. We move into it slowly, reluctantly as though entering a fog we're not sure we'll emerge from. From this vantage point, I found Mather and director Kim Weild's cautious approach an honest one.