When Saul Elkin watches his daughter perform onstage, he tends to get lost in the moment.
“I'm sometimes taken aback by her intelligence, by her wit,” Elkin said in a recent interview on the half-finished set of Jewish Repertory Theatre's “Beau Jest,” in which Elkin and Rebecca Elkin-Young play two characters not entirely unfamiliar to them: a father and daughter working to reconcile their generational differences.
“She's not the daughter I see on a daily basis and hear on a daily basis. So I see things as we're rehearsing here that take me by surprise, happily take me by surprise.”
This split-second reverie of fatherly admiration happened more than a few times during rehearsals for James Sherman's “Beau Jest,” the third play in which Elkin and Elkin-Young, who lives in Brooklyn and works as a drama therapist, have played dramatic variations on the roles they also happen to play in real life.
Mid-rehearsal, with his script in his hand, Elkin would occasionally catch some subtlety of his daughter's performance and find himself transported back in time.
He'd picture the little girl who used to tag along with him to rehearsals for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, the standout performer in the grade-school play, the 14-year-old who wowed audiences playing opposite her father as the title character in Theatre of Youth's 2000 production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“This is not the little girl,” Elkin said, still sounding surprised. “This is not Anne Frank. This is a mature woman with lots of stuff.”
Elkin, the founder of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, co-founder of Jewish Rep and beloved elder statesman of the Buffalo theater community, has had plenty of opportunities to watch his daughter act onstage. But each time he does, in one of those brief flickers of wonder, he sees something new. Something that surprises him.
And that's why, at 82 and with the bulk of his performing life behind him, he keeps finding ways to bring her onstage with him.
Listen to an interview with Saul Elkin, Rebecca Elkin-Young and "Beau Jest" director Steve Vaughn:
Their first father-daughter collaboration was in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” in which Rebecca played the young Holocaust victim and her father played Otto Frank, the lone survivor of his family's ordeal. The second was a 2008 production of “King Lear” at Shakespeare in Delaware Park, in which Saul Elkin played the title role and Rebecca played Cordelia, the mad king's favorite daughter.
This time around the stakes are much lower, with a setup evocative of an '80s sitcom and a story that spends most of its time on farce and slapstick with digressions into more serious subject matter, such as the difficulty of maintaining Jewish traditions in the American melting pot.
For Elkin-Young, a life in the theater was never a question.
“I was doomed from the start,” she said, “I've been coming to rehearsals with my dad since I was a toddler. It's been in my blood. It's been my passion as long as I can remember, and I've tried to beat it out of myself, but I just haven't succeeded in the last 30 years.”
She didn't get any help kicking the acting bug from her parents, either.
“I never really felt, growing up, these pressures that Sarah in the play feels to conform to what her parents want for her,” Elkin-Young said, referring to her character, a Jewish girl yearning to break free from her family's staunch customs. “I always felt that my path was going to be fully accepted, which is a beautiful, amazing thing.”
It's common for actors and directors to discourage their children from going into theater, out of a concern that they'll struggle to make ends meet or that the life will make too many demands on their happiness or sanity.
But that was never an issue in the Elkin household, where Saul and Janine Elkin encouraged Rebecca to follow her dream of acting and her younger sister, Emily, to act and perform in orchestras. (Emily Elkin is now a professional cellist, living in Los Angeles.)
“I'm a Jewish father. I'm supposed to have prodded my kids into engineering or the medical sciences or whatever,” Elkin said. “In my own background, my father was a factory worker, and his dream for me was that I would be a dentist. And to be honest, I tried it for one semester in college and within two months, I was in a play on campus. Dentistry went away.”
Elkin said his father's desire for him to go into dentistry weighed on him as a young man, but that he struggled with the idea of pushing his daughters in a direction they weren't naturally inclined to go.
“I knew it wasn't for me,” he said. “And I couldn't imagine myself saying to them: 'You know acting is fun, but engineering …'”
So it was for Elkin-Young, who set her sights on a life in the theater as early as kindergarten and made her professional debut at age 12 in a 1997 production of “A Little House Christmas” at Theatre of Youth.
While rummaging through a pile of family memorabilia recently, Elkin-Young recalled, she came across a handwritten note she'd produced in grade school.
“It said, 'Future Goals.' Two goals: 'Number One: to get taller,” she said. “And 'Number Two: to be in a play, a real play in a real theater.' So I did it. I got slightly taller and I'm in a real play.”
Both Saul and Rebecca characterized the opportunity to act with one another onstage – as father or daughter or not – as a rare gift, full of surprising moments that linger long after the curtain comes down.
And while there are certain benefits to knowing someone in your cast so well, it hasn't always been easy to separate their emotional ties from the lives and interactions of their characters.
Saul Elkin vividly recalled how difficult it was to preform his final speech in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” in which Otto Frank describes the awful fate of his entire family.
“I could barely get through it every night,” he said. “It was even more powerful for me, because Becca was playing Anne, and I couldn't keep the image of her out of my head while I was talking about these issues ...”
It was even more difficult in “King Lear,” in which Elkin had to carry Cordelia's lifeless body offstage. Elkin described the scene as “almost un-doable.”
But the payoff, both for the actors and the audience, is worth it.
“We had a moment in Lear, and I'm sure you remember this, toward the end of the play when Lear has been out in the wilderness and he's ill, and out of it, and suddenly finds himself in his daughter's arms,” Elkin said, addressing his daughter. “I will never forget that moment, looking into your face.”
“Me too,” Elkin-Young said. “When you look into your own father's eyes, there's a very rare opportunity to get to really encounter your father like that. I think you go through your life and you're like, oh yeah, it's my dad, and maybe you wouldn't think of these big emotions that Anne Frank or Shakespeare might spark. But when you have that as a lens, and then you have the element of it being your own dad, it really intensifies it. It's pretty incredible.”
“Beau Jest” director Steve Vaughn said the closeness mostly works in Elkin and Elkin-Young's favor, with only minor drawback being the expectations they set for one another.
“They put pressure on each other,” Vaughn said. “And that's a good thing, in that they're striving for excellence. But sometimes that extra pressure gets in the way of allowing things to happen.”
Even so, Vaughn said, the occasional intrusion of personal issues into what is ordinarily a strictly professional relationship never lasts long.
For Elkin-Young, the only down side to appearing in a play with her father arises from a sense of protectiveness and concern for his wellbeing onstage.
“Everyone I'm in a cast with, I care about them, they become family to me, I want them to be doing OK. But I really want everything to be OK with him. If I see him falter or worry, it's hard not to activate my Becca alert, and not just my fellow-actor alert.”
The same, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes for Elkin.
“That truly is an issue for me as well. I have every hope that every member of this cast will succeed at whatever they're doing,” Elkin said. “But she needs to succeed.”