"Looking Through Glass," now onstage at Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York, is a window into another world. Here the boundaries between life and death become meaningless against the forces of love and faith, and leave us with the question, What happens to an unlived life?
It is the story of a young woman who is possessed by the spirit of her dead true love just as she is about to marry another man. An adaptation of S. Ansky's century-old Russian play "The Dybbuk," Ken Kaissar's updated version maintains its roots in Jewish folklore, which tells of lost spirits that inhabit other people's bodies when they can't move on to the afterlife.
The result is something of a philosophical marriage between "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Exorcist," and ends just as happily.
Guided by the spirit of S. Ansky (played with knowing enthusiasm by David Lundy), the first scene of the play relieves us of any suspense as Ansky introduces us to the two dead lovers. Leah and Jacob (a well-matched Arin Lee Dandes and Zachary Bellus) have a lot of questions for Ansky about how they got there. As do we.
But what happened to them is not what matters, Ansky exclaims. What matters is why it happened. That is the purpose of theater and of stories, he says – "We tell our stories to understand."
For the next hour and 45 minutes, director Saul Elkin gives his audience plenty of space to focus. The show is staged on a bare set with virtually no props other than a small book and one brief appearance by a chair. We have only Tina Rausa's strong accent as Leah's mother, Miriam, and a passing reference to the Brooklyn Bridge to know the story has moved from its original Russian setting to New York. Not much is lost in translation; in fact, quite a bit of Yiddish comes along with it.
That is because place and time have little meaning for these characters. Theirs is a story about love in all its many forms – romantic love, the love of a parent for a child, of one friend for another, sensible love, love at first sight, love that cannot be explained, love that is worth dying for.
Although he's written as a spoiler, we are allowed to have sympathy for Shmuel, Leah's betrothed. As played by Angelo J. Heimowitz, he is more than a sturdy backdrop for the star-crossed lovers. He cares about Leah, he has loved her since childhood, and he is quick to recognize the danger Jacob poses to his future.
He resorts to condescending name-calling, a weak weapon against fate, but initially it appears to work. The first act ends with Jacob walking off; the second act begins with Leah preparing for her wedding to Shmuel. Dandes plays the conflicted bride beautifully, dutifully appeasing her mother, who is practically delirious with joy.
Then the spirit shows up and all hell breaks loose.
There is a lot going on: Leah is in pain; Shmuel is in denial; Miriam is in agony (Rausa is incredible in this scene); and the rabbi (Lundy) is facing elements far beyond his job description. The coda is less a moral than another set of questions, something we apparently never escape.
"Looking Through Glass" goes into territory unexplored by many other plays, putting death at the beginning and building from there. It could be a rough journey, but the bold confidence of the performers carries us along easily as they enter this strange, new and ancient place.
"Looking Through Glass"
★ ★ ★ (out of 4 stars)
Presented through June 2 by the Jewish Repertory Theatre in the Maxine & Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. (Post-show talkbacks on Thursdays would be especially interesting for this play.) Tickets are $38 general, $36 for seniors and $10 for students (jewishrepertorytheatre.com).