Sarah Gancher has created a complex and beautifully sophisticated play, describing the recovery in Budapest from several kinds of war and occupation. Judit (Birgit Huppuch), a fiery young woman, estranged from her mother and siblings, agrees to a visit for a family Seder, which, against their inclination to be only secular, might signal their willingness to accept – to endorse, even – their Jewish heritage. It’s not an easy proposition. Erzsike (Mia Dillon) is hostile to the concept. Laci (an energetic Dustin Ingram) – her free-wheeling son – looks askance at the process. Only Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest) – a somewhat dumpy daughter who has attracted and attached to David (Steven Rattazzi), an American writer with a Jewish background who has somewhere located Hungarian Haggadahs and is trying to lead the celebration despite a gaggle of interruptions.
And interruptions there are. Erzsike has spent the afternoon looking at a wall of murderers in the Museum of Terror, and finding her face firmly anchored there. She is understandably distracted – especially because she was “only a secretary” on an upper floor of the building, with no involvement in the “terror” down below. Through a series of flashbacks – impressively managed with the help of Marcus Dilliard’s fine lighting design, it becomes clear that in the process of surviving the chaos of wartime, Erzsike was very much the mistress of Attila (Jeremy Webb), a high-ranking official within the Communist structure, and, when he married elsewhere, she married, at his instruction, Tamas (Liam Craig), who all the children thought of as their father. Attila continued to provide some benefits to (and collect others from?) Erzsike, and Tamas was always fully aware that Judit was not his child.
“Seder” is a thoroughly heavy, depressing, play. There are only two light moments in the entire production. One that might have been inserted in rehearsals is when Judit describes her involvement in a progressive political group as “taking back our country – making Hungary great again.” The other is when David, having pulled the assembled guests through the last sentences of the Hagaddah, announces “there! We’ve done it – more or less.” Each of these marvelous actors are called upon to perform deeply emotional moments and strenuous scenes. Steven Rattazzi deserves a nomination for best actor in his difficult role as the slightly bumbling American, David, who ‘never really made a success out of anything,’ and his playful adoration of Margit and therapeutic attention to her family. Birgit Huppuch demonstrates powerful angst as Judit, and Mia Dillon is fully magnificent as her sorrowing, desperate mother – wanting her child and her self-image back on her terms. Dustin Ingram bounces and squirms exquisitely as Laci. Webb and Craig bring stolid power to their Communist roles. If this broken family system can be considered an ensemble, they might receive an award for the togetherness they finally embrace.
It remains to compliment Nick Vaughan for the powerful scenic design which shows the wall of murderers always in the background, and again to call attention to the superb lighting provided by Marcus Dilliard, Jane Shaw’s sound design, and Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, all of which contribute to the power of the production. Elizabeth Williamson has directed a stunningly visual production, by allowing some actors to move, and others to freeze, motionless, while the audience is taken back and forth from time past to time present, with amazing tension that pervades the whole.
www.hartfordstage.org for tickets and information, or call 860-527-5151
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre November 4, 2017