It’s easy to divide up groups of people through appearance, state/county lines, religion, or just about any other aspect that can differentiate us from one another. Though ultimately, when you get right down to it, everyone wants the same things out of life: security, comfort, happiness, and so on. It just so happens that we tend to define those goals differently. And then there’s trouble. Issues of morality aside, the struggle most often comes not so much from another group’s differing opinions on a matter as much as our mutual miscommunication. What we find important may mean nothing to an opposing force and vice versa, so how can we relate our troubles? It’s easy to be agreeable in theory, but when the time comes to be in an active struggle with another group over such a vague concept as values then we learn whether or not we can back up what we believe to be important.
Postville by Don Fried is a fictionalized retelling of true events in which the struggling Iowan town of Postville is saved economically by a group of Hasidic Jews who purchase a defunct meatpacking plant to reestablish it as a kosher plant. Naturally, the initial saving graces are overshadowed by the inevitable culture clash that occurs between the townsfolk and the newcomers. Meanwhile, a young journalism professor makes periodic visits in the names of research and curiosity, and finds himself embroiled on both sides of the conflict.
Given the cross-cultural nature of Postville the ten-actor ensemble cast provides a motley assortment of characters, though they can mostly be organized into three groups: the townsfolk, the Hasidic Jews, and the immigrants. Though performances varied within each group I found the Hasidic Jews to be some of the strongest performances in the production. Beau Paul and Robert Stevens, as Moishe and Avram respectively, stole the show with their fully-realized portrayals of thoroughly traditional Hasidic Jews, characterizing themselves enough to accurately represent Hasidism without stepping into the territory of gross exaggerations. Paul and Stevens play well off one another both as similarly stern and faithful individuals while also foiling each other nicely. Paul’s timidity in the face of Stevens’s arrogance made for some interesting chemistry between the two men. As for the native residents of Postville, the townsfolk properly balanced their desires to be warm and welcoming while feeling ostracized in their own home. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Kathy Rose Center (Grace) and Patrick Lescarbeau (Ray) who, similar to Paul and Stevens, foiled one another nicely. Both initially characterize the amiable nature of small towns, but show their respective colors as tensions begin to rise. Center remains one of the calming influences throughout the show, while Lescarbeau is noticeably ready to burst given the opportunity. They’re subtle, and believably in their reactions.
However, there were a few performances that were fine but left me wanting for more. Most notably Nathan Daniel Ford as Jonathan, the visiting professor of journalism who tries to simultaneously juggle everybody’s loyalties. While Ford’s performance wasn’t bad it simply felt dry, as if he was not fully invested in the conflict. This could be appropriate given Jonathan’s status as the one true outsider in cast mostly made of outsiders; his investment could be taken as only partial given that the ultimate outcome won’t immediately affect his life. However, given that Jonathan felt like he was supposed to be the audience surrogate character it hindered his scenes to seem so disconnected. The other two performances that didn’t quite hold up to the rest of the cast were those of Corinna Browning as local waitress Katie, and Jacquelyn Lies as Moishe’s wife Chanah. Similar to Ford’s performances, both women simply didn’t seem to be as invested in their scenes as the rest of the cast around them. As a result I struggled to stay invested in their respective subplots, both involving the fathers of their children. Otherwise, the cast was solid and kept the production aloft.
Taking place entirely in Postville, the production’s shifts to different locales around the town, but over half of those scenes take place outside and within Dorinda’s Café, the typical meeting ground for the locals. As a result the set (designed by Beau Harris) for Dorinda’s was the most detailed and malleable, made of easily movable panels and set pieces that allowed for quick disassembly. The other sets were rather sparse by comparison, often consisting of only a few chairs, or less, but they were only as packed as they needed to be. I have no problems with the sparse sets in other scenes other than their juxtaposition with the more detailed set used prominently throughout, though this too could be seen as an intentional nod towards the community unifying at one location (community and unity both being central themes to the production as a whole). Interestingly, the show utilized an upstage screen to project background scenery through windows, and showcase visuals that otherwise could not be staged realistically (i.e. a trip to the meat-packing plant). The style in which the videos were filmed gave off a nostalgic home movie vibe that coalesced nicely with the general theme of hometown comforts throughout. I’ve seen similar video backdrops used in other productions, but I rather enjoyed the sensation of its thematic usage rather than simply being a gimmick. With all that said, the only real trouble involving the technical visuals occurred with a few sloppy scene transitions though that’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a little polishing.
Ultimately I’d say the biggest strength of the production is Fried’s script which takes the effort to make sure none of the characters are gross stereotypes. It would be too easy for the Hasidic Jews to have thick accents and speak Yiddish with every other word, for the Iowans to be ignorant country folk, or for the immigrants to be bizarre foreigners. Fried clearly made sure that there was depth to his characters that made them sympathetic and relatable. The play earns its laughs, but it’s not a straight up comedy. The conflicts brought up are relatable despite their curious circumstances. Every group is experience change, for better and for worse. No one is made out to be “the bad guy”, but simply a collective of individuals whose values differ. There’s a moment early in Act II in which Jonathan is asked by the Hasidic Jews of the townsfolk’s grievances, “Are these things so important?” to which he simply replies “To them.” And for me, that sums up the struggles and thematic elements of Postville perfectly. The characters differ, but deep down they’re more similar than they believe.
Last Act Theatre Company and Austin Jewish Repertory Theatre’s Postville continues playing at the Trinity Street Players everyThursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until August 14th.