Last Act Theatre Company's Postville
In Don Fried's drama, small-town Midwesterners face a clash of cultures when Hasidic Jews move in
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 12, 2016
Postville, Iowa, has seen better days. The meatpacking plant on its outskirts shut down a while back, and that's meant fewer jobs, fewer businesses, and hell, the train doesn't even roll through town anymore. The locals who still drop in daily at Dorinda's Cafe have little to do but sit in the sidewalk rockers sippin' coffee. And that cuppa joe can be a luxury for a guy like Ray, who's out of work and months behind on child support payments to Katie, a waitress there who has troubles of her own making ends meet. With times this tight, you'd think someone sweeping in to reopen the plant would be seen as a godsend. But when Postville's potential saviors turn out to be Hasidim from Brooklyn, intent on not merely making the plant kosher but also maintaining their orthodox customs – within the community but largely apart from it – it sits less well with these insular Iowans who say they've never met a Jew in the flesh before. Those storm clouds gathering over Dorinda's? Could be a sign of things to come.
As unlikely as it may sound, Don Fried's play Postville draws from an actual place and events: Back in 1987, a group of Lubavitch Hasidim from New York did indeed transform a closed meatpacking plant in the real Postville into a kosher slaughterhouse, and it did lead to a community of East Coast Hasidic Jews springing up the midst of this very white, very Christian town in the Midwest, as well as to an influx of immigrants, mostly Latino and Eastern European, to work in the facility. While his script has invented characters and telescopes the timeline of two decades into a single year, Fried rightly recognized fertile ground for drama in that historical situation and labored to till as much of it as possible. In the play, the preservation and loss of cultural traditions, assimilation, and suspicion of outsiders become flash points for both sides, and the economic power of the Hasidim, embodied in the aggressively thrifty Avram (a gruff, hard bargain-driving Robert Stevens in the staging from Last Act Theatre Company in partnership with Austin Jewish Repertory Theater), provokes as much envy and distrust as gratitude among the locals after some feel the newcomers aren't paying their fair share of taxes. Around the edges of these conflicts flare contentious questions of illegal immigration, wage inequality, gender roles for women, the meaning of community, and the divided loyalties that can arise from trying to serve both sides in a dispute.
That's a lot of territory Fried covers, though not much of it is in depth. A long scene of the Iowans' clumsy attempt to welcome the Hasidim exposes their ignorance of their new neighbors' culture, but nothing comparable shows us how the locals educate themselves about it in the year following. Overt bigotry toward the newcomers is limited to one offstage incident of a bottle being thrown at the Jewish community center. Chanah, who's married to the rebbe Moishe, leaves him when she feels confined by her culture's prescribed roles for women, but their separation and what looks to be their reconciliation later, are treated in a handful of sentences. This leaves the actors here little room to truly explore the impact of these events on their characters.
In one scene, the locals liken their situation to one in a Western, and the characters here tend to resemble the townsfolk in those movies: reserved, earnest citizens striving to do right under trying circumstances. The cast projects a quiet decency, anchored by Kathy Rose Center's calm, upstanding Grace, mayor of Postville, and Beau Paul's Moishe, whose downcast eyes and tentative gestures convey the rebbe's complicated feelings about wanting to serve both tradition and this new world he's become part of.
We can sense their pain from the changes they experience – and in the program, Fried notes that he was more interested in the inevitability of change and the pain it causes than assigning blame in this story – but it's fleeting and seems not to leave any lasting wounds. Ultimately, the pain in Postville comes and goes as quickly as the storm clouds over the cafe – it's a squall that doesn't even require you to leave your rocker and seek shelter. That's nice, but is that always how it works? If you wonder that, too, then you may find yourself pulling away from this Iowa town with more questions than answers.
PostvilleTrinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity
Through Aug. 14
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.