Friday, September 17, 2010

'The Invasion of Skokie' Doesn't Quite Hit Home

Theater Review

The Invasion of Skokie
a play by Steven Peterson
Chicago Dramatists
Through October 10, 2010

When I invaded, from Skokie, the Chicago Dramatists' theater for a world premiere drama penned by one of their network playwrights, I had high expectations to take in substantive new work of considerable personal significance.

Not only is Chicago Dramatists a great resource for developing talented new writers--most notably of recent vintage, Keith Huff, whose 'A Steady Rain' ran on Broadway with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig--but in addition to being a current resident of Skokie, I grew up there.

As a child under the age of 10, I likely didn't grasp the full significance when a group of "Illinois Nazis" requested permission to march & demonstrate in Skokie in 1977-78, and upon being denied, enlisted the ACLU to represent them all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But I was aware--and later became far more so--that Skokie at the time was a village where a vast majority of the population (roughly 40,000 of 70,000 residents) was Jewish, with about one-sixth of the Jews being Holocaust survivors.

I more acutely remember when the Nazis came to demonstrate in Evanston's Lovelace Park, about a 5-minute walk from my family's Skokie home, in October 1980 (I didn't attend, but still recall it being discussed at Hebrew school) and when the events of 1977-78--which ended with the Nazis ultimately gaining permission to march, sans swastikas, but canceling two days prior to the planned demonstration and opting to instead appear in Chicago--were depicted in the 1981 TV movie Skokie, starring Danny Kaye and Eli Wallach. (This is a fairly good chronology from the Skokie Historical Society website of what actually happened; this is a Time article on the legal battle from June 26, 1978)

This unseemly but unifying bit of local history inspired several of the survivors in town to open a Holocaust museum, which ultimately morphed into much larger one that bowed last year with visits from Elie Wiesel and Bill Clinton. Preceding the new museum's grand opening, the Chicago Tribune Magazine featured a long and quite informative background piece written by Howard Reich, the Trib's jazz critic who grew up in Skokie as the son of Holocaust survivors.

So when a friend recommended we see The Invasion of Skokie, which got a positive review from the Tribune's Chris Jones, I was really looking forward to it.

Photo Credit: Jeff Pines
Before I even entered the theater, on the window I read another press clipping from the Chicago Sun-Times in which the playwright Steven Peterson says, "It's not a history play. It's a play about one family, and the march serves as an intensifier for their story." So I knew it wasn't going to be too similar to the movie 'Skokie,' which I recently re-watched, and perhaps not quite what I was expecting, but I went in with an open mind.

'The Invasion of Skokie' started out successfully enough. The best set I've ever seen at Chicago Dramatists realistically depicted a local home and backyard, and with strong performances from everyone in the five-person cast, I thought the first act was pretty strong, if not quite perfectly nuanced.

But by the end of Act 2, I left rather disappointed that Peterson's attempt to weave a melodramatic family plot involving a proposed inter-faith marriage--rendered far more poignantly years ago in 'Fiddler On The Roof'--with a recounting of the outrage (and for some, call to arms) that accompanied the Nazis almost coming to Skokie had struck a discordant note on both strands. Though not quite as bad, The Invasion of Skokie reminded me of Rebecca Gilman's disastrous 'A True History of the Johnstown Flood,' where a truer history would've been far more compelling than a convoluted weaving of factual & fictional narratives.

A good deal of Peterson's intertwined arcs just rang untrue, and while I hopefully won't give much away--unlike a tidbit in the press about the play, which ruined the tension of a key moment--I came away feeling that the main character, Morry Kaplan, in objecting to his daughter's engagement to a "Shabbes goy" long beloved by the family and then heading off to meet the Nazis with rifle in hand (stupidly dressed like Elmer Fudd for some reason), demonstrated self-righteous indignance nearly as ugly as the bigotry of the unseen Nazis. (Although the distinction may not have mattered to anyone indelibly scarred by the sight of swastikas, the idiots in Nazi uniforms were technically the National Socialist Party of America, led by Frank Collin, who was ousted from leadership when it was revealed his father was a Jew who claimed to have been a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp.)

Photo Credit: Jeff Pines
Morry is clearly identified as having lived his whole life in Chicago and thus not himself a camp survivor nor a European Jew who escaped persecution. Certainly, all Jews--really all humans--should detest and decry what Hitler and his minions did, and anyone who espouses such venomous anti-Semitism, but the rage-cum-rifle toting machismo Peterson instills in Morry is not only criminal and anti-constitutional, it feels like piggybacked vigilantism next to the innate fear, revulsion and rebellion of those with numbers tattooed on their arms, many of whom--as depicted by Danny Kaye in 'Skokie'--saw their loved ones murdered before their eyes.

At the end of the night, I never really bought Morry as an inherently anguished Jew--his faith never seems all that central to him--fearing for his family's safety or fighting to uphold their Jewish identity as much as simply a belligerent asshole who lashes out to prop up his skewed, ever-diminishing sense of purpose. While most fictional works are open to interpretation, I'm guessing this wasn't quite the intent of playwright Peterson or director Richard Perez.

I realize that this is extremely tricky subject matter for any writer to tackle, for it's almost antithetical to suggest to anyone--even ourselves--when and where logic should supersede emotion, especially in regards to issues of race, religion and self-preservation. From a legal, First Amendment standpoint, to say the Nazis should have been prohibited from demonstrating in Skokie due to people hating what they espoused is congruent to suggesting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should have been disallowed from staging civil rights demonstrations to which bigots violently objected. Or, though the parallel is far from exact, that peaceful Muslims should be precluded from building a mosque in downtown Manhattan because of how loudly certain factions may be shouting it down.

So I applaud Peterson for attempting to pull off, at worst, a challenging, thought-provoking play with a bit of originality. The acting by Mick Weber, Cindy Gold, Tracey Kaplan, Michael Joseph Mitchell and Bradford R. Lund is all first-rate, as is the scenery. And given my high regard for the Chicago Dramatists, combined with the substantive nature of 'The Invasion of Skokie,' I wouldn't suggest that anyone inclined to see it should stay away. But as a play that tries--albeit in a roundabout way--to get to the heart of my hometown's most historical moment, it just didn't hit me where I live.


Yudi said...

I was there at the Skokie city hall the day the Nazi were coming to Skokie. It was a failry large crowd (mostly Holocaust survivors)! But it turned out not to be an "Invasion" at all. The police stopped the Nazi schmucks at it tunred out to be "much ado about gornisct"! What was important (to me) was the fact that for the Holocaust survivors it was a "redemption" for them...they were "standing up" this time ..instead of doing nothing!

Seth Arkin said...

Thanks for sharing this remembrance Yudi. I fully concur with your point about the valor of the survivors "standing up" and this well depicted in the movie 'Skokie' if not so much in the play.

You also helped clarify something, as in reading about the incidents, it seemed that Collin and the Nazis had canceled their Skokie plans a couple days before they were due in town. But the play depicts that the demonstration only got switched to Chicago at the last minute. I thought this was a bit of dramatic license, but obviously it wasn't.

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Gary said...

Missed the play, but had a pair of nunchucks confiscated from me by the Evanston police upon search while entering the park fence prior to this actual event about a mile from my house (Karlov and Golf). I was 19 at the time, dad was a Holocaust survivor. Found your blog in a google, thanks. A lot of the history I have found about the events surrounding the neo-Nazi's activities around this time period seems to ignore the Evanston rally. I remember it clearly, although short and relatively uneventful... the small group of neo-Nazis quickly fled as they were ridiculed by the crowd and pelted with eggs and flying debris. The anger I came with was satisfactorily converted to amusement. My moment in history.

AP photo of the morons:

Gary Silver