The hero of this Theatre en Bloc premiere wrestles with ethical issues while working for FDR
Reviewed by Elissa Russell, Fri., April 10, 2015
Many of us, regardless of religious affiliation, are familiar with the biblical Jacob and his vision of a ladder, a metaphor for his ascension to heaven. Theatre en Bloc is currently offering a production of a new work by the same name, but the Jacob in focus here climbs a different ladder, this time in the workforce, having just begun a job as a staffer in FDR's White House. Pressures of work, home life, and a raging war bubble up, causing our protagonist to wrestle with morality and eventually to do his own part to incite change.
Using a familial connection to secure himself a spot in the office of the most powerful man in the world, Jacob (Zach Kleinsmith) is a nervous yet ambitious recent Harvard graduate, a young Jewish man passionate about his family and his convictions, but unsure how to thrive in his new position. Kleinsmith delivers a solid performance, both quirky and confident when called for. Sharing his office is FDR's firecracker secretary, Patsy (a biting Johanna Whitmore), who does little to help him gain his footing and has little patience for his optimism and inexperience. Through his close proximity to the president, Jacob eventually learns of plans to bomb the Nazi concentration camps, an issue that is to him both ethical and deeply personal, as a relative of his is currently imprisoned at one such camp.
When not ferrying documents back and forth, Jacob enjoys time with his charming wife, Sara, played by Theatre en Bloc's own Jenny Lavery. Though deeply in love with her husband, Sara has her own ambitions apart from her family, and Lavery portrays the affable but driven young woman with aplomb. A foil to Sara's modern independence is Jacob's mother, Esther, an Eastern European who escaped her tumultuous past, played by the formidable Babs George. At times this role skirts the line of stereotype, but George's superb talent helps mask these deficiencies in the script, producing a character who feels well-rounded and believable.
Any problems I have with this production are rooted in the script, written by Dennis Bailey and David Mixner. Much of the dialogue feels a bit stilted and unnatural, a hurdle that this talented group of actors works to overcome. There are also some inconsistencies peppered throughout – Jacob, referred to as "the smartest man in the room," is unable to remember Hamlet's name, for one. Furthermore, I find it difficult to believe that Jacob would be allowed to speak to the president about highly confidential information that he had no business knowing in the first place, though it does make for a lovely moment at the end of the play.
Under Derek Kolluri's smart direction, Theatre en Bloc overcomes these minor roadblocks and once more delivers high-caliber theatre. The visuals are gorgeous, from Leslie Turner's smooth, abstract scenic design to Steven Shirey's soft, blue-toned lighting. Blake Addyson's big band sound design helps take us back in time, as do Jenny Hanna-Chambers' lovely costumes. One of my favorite decisions, though, is the choice to perform in the Boyd Vance Theatre at the George Washington Carver Museum, an underutilized space in our theatre community. The skilled creative team at Theatre en Bloc consistently works to bring us new works in new ways, and Jacob's Ladder is a step up in the right direction.
Jacob's LadderBoyd Vance Theatre, 1165 Angelina, 512/522-4083
Through April 19
Running time: 2 hr.