'Lilka Kadison' is possessed by the supernatural

THEATER REVIEW: "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison" ★★½

About halfway through "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison," the final show of the 2010-11 season at the Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre, I found myself reflecting on the deep perils of dramatizing the memories of older folk.

It's a tempting perennial, of course. Like cinema, theater has an inherently close relationship with memory. But I can't tell you the number of times I've sat in a darkened room and watched a senior citizen — who sometimes was suffused with nostalgia, sometimes racked with regret, sometimes both — drift off into some kind of snooze or reverie and interact with the dancing shadows of his or her younger life, invariably including the beautiful younger self, careening across a stage. The motivation is invariably a desire to honor and celebrate the life of a remarkable person, be she famous or everyday. But, still, these memories are very difficult to do well. Unintentional condescension lurks at every wrong turn.

And although this very spirited new work at the Lookingglass is full of promise, sentiment and affection, it needs a good deal more development.

One useful starting place might be the very beginning, and the provision of a reason that the central character of Lilith Fisher, who seems very much alive and well at 87 years old in California, is somehow reliving her difficult past in the Poland of 1939 at this, and only this, particular moment.

The other might be the answering of the question as to why Lilith, played by the skilled Marilyn Dodds Frank and represented here as shrewd, funny, hip to modernity and whip-smart, isn't just telling her nurse (and, by extension, us) about her memories in rational terms, rather than dancing with a handsome ghost from the world of the Yiddish theater.

Of course, ghosts are more theatrical. The trick lies in how they are integrated into mortal, truthful soil.

In this very earnest 80-minute piece by the writing team of Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Andrew White, Abbie Phillips and Heidi Stillman — a striking number of authors, for a non-musical at least — Lilka Kadison is a fictional creation. But she is based on the stories of Jewish people from all over the world, as recounted on the popular public radio series "One People, Many Stories." The show was inspired by the work of Johanna Cooper, a broadcaster who frequently was drawn to Jewish stories.

The setup here is that Lilith is chatting with Menelik Kahn (Usman Ally), her new in-home help and a man of Pakistani origin and with his own tales of persecution. As played with typical wit and lightness by Usman Ally, Kahn is trying to get Lilith to clean up her place and generally conform to various rules that home helpers and their bosses try to impose on their charges.

But as Lillith resists, her junk and tchotchkes (with the help of the designers Jacqueline and Richard Penrod) transform into a vibrant Old World marketplace. It's occupied by Ben Ari Adler (Chance Bone), a young and handsome theatrical storyteller, and a budding star of the ever-mobile Yiddish stage who uses a toy theater to tell the story of King Solomon — a story that contains many lessons for the young in this most perilous of Jewish moments. There in Lilith's living room, we meet young Lilka Kadison, an embodiment of Lilith's younger self and a conservative girl whose conformist life is blown apart first by the flowering of the story of love and then by Nazi tanks.

As played by the resolute and wholly honest Nora Fiffer, Lilka is a very appealing character (Bone's less complex Ben Ari Adler does not seem fully worthy of her). Still, a couple of scenes in particular are deeply moving. One is the snapshot of the moment when Fiffer's young woman, having just watched her family disappear, suddenly finds herself alone with a man and the horrors of the world; she realizes that she has about 30 seconds to grow up into a woman, and it makes you catch your breath.

Another is the play's emotional contemplation of how Jewish children, about to suffer the most unspeakable thing ever done en masse to children, could still truth and help in ancient stories. This is hardly the first piece to probe how art — in this case, Chance's little traveling theater of two performers — could provide crucial balm and more abiding meaning in an exploding world, but it does so with some eloquence and simplicity. All Lilka's acts—first, last, the ones betwixt and between--feel authentic and engrossing.

For all its clever flourishes and bravura theatricality, Kersnar's direction is less certain when it comes to the simpler matter of dividing and integrating his two worlds. It is never clear, for example, whether Menelik sees the supernatural activities in Lilith's room. He does seem to notice when Ben Ari Adler sends things flying, but he says little, and the rules aren't clear as to whether this is all in Lilith's head. Even as boundaries soften and questions merge, we still must feel as if we are getting an explanation.

Which brings me back to the central question of why. There is much — very much — of worth here. Now, instead of the kind of sycophantic, pageant-like opening that a forceful soul like Lillith actually would despise — for it is a cliche in grant-friendly plays of this sort — "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison" needs to open and proceed with the kind of sharpness, edge, complexity and drama that would make it worthy of its own central character, a survivor now and forever.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through July 24 (extended Aug. 21)

Where: Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 mins

Tickets: $34-62 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org

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