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“The Last Act of Lilka Kadison” begins with wings and ends with feathers. Between times, Evanston actors Nora Fiffer and Marilyn Dodds Frank, together with Chance Bone and Kareem Bandealy (new to the play last week) fill the scenes with the naiveté and wistfulness of truncated youth and the sarcasm of old age that strives to cover old wounds.
The play, at Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago’s old Water Tower, was inspired by the life and work of Johanna Cooper. It was written by Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Abbie Phillips, Heidi Stillman and Andrew White, three of whom are associated with the theatre company.
Just becoming a young woman, Lilka (Ms. Fiffer) is sent to market to try to get flour from a miller whose bill her family had not paid. Her cares are those of a typical Polish Jewish girl in the 1930s, when Hitler seemed only a whispered threat: poverty, siblings to care for, her gender barring the way to some aspirations. But these cares and duties also shelter her from a wilder world. Ben Ari Adler shows her this world with a puppet show he has brought to town, depicting in bawdy terms the love between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. German tanks roll in, and the world changes. Now lovers, the two huddle for the night. Ben never returns from a trip to scout for food, and Lilka Kadison disappears.
Years later, cantankerous widow Lilith Fisher (Ms. Frank) of Los Angeles is seen picking fights with Menelik Kahn, her caregiver, and arguing on the telephone with her adult son. Although Lilith has learned that Ben was killed shortly after the invasion of Poland, he appears to her in her old age, seeming both to ease and to exacerbate the pain of the present. And that pain still overlays the pain of the past, catching Lilith between remembering and trying not to remember.
Time rolls out secrets. The prologue that promises that a newborn child has already seen and forgotten her life’s experience ends with the puppet master’s revelation of what is really within the Ark of the Covenant. Everything is at hand, it seems, but only some things are accessible at any given time.
Time separates and memory unites the characters: Lilka and Lilith are separated by nothing more than a lifetime; Lilith and Ben by death. Menelik bridges the gap between the absent, living son and the present yet conjured lover.
But the great divide, the great devastation, is the Holocaust; no survivor is the same. Few echoes of Lilka are seen in Lilith Fisher; they may be two sides of a flattened coin. “You have two people who seem to be from opposite worlds, but they do have a lot in common,” said Ms. Fiffer in an interview with the RoundTable. “Lilka is stubborn and has her guard up as a default, but her time with Ben breaks that quality. But Lilith – it takes longer [to get her guard down] and people chip away at it. Lilka is able to experience joy and hope in a way that Lilith is incapable of. Her guard is up. With her son there is a stronger internal struggle than there is with her caregiver.”
This play with four actors, a puppet theatre and an imagined voice on the end of the telephone in this small theatre, draws the audience to itself. “The chemistry between the audience and the actors is different every night,” says Ms. Fiffer. An actor’s task is to “be true to the story and let the audience take away from it what they wish … What’s been so interesting about this play is that often audience members will stick around, wait for us to come out and tell us how the play touched them. They’ll say, for example, ‘My grandmother is a [Holocaust] survivor’. ‘I’m in the health-care profession’. ‘My mother died last year,’” she added.
These connections, whether among the actors or with the audience, will keep the “Last Act” going until its own last act, now scheduled for Aug. 21.