In spite of the play’s melodrama and old-fashioned theatrical effects like soliloquies to the audience, Kuhn’s shrewd direction which leans toward heightened realism undercuts the play’s sensationalism and treats it naturalistically. In the early part of the 17th century, Jews were banned from Austria and not allowed to spend one night in the country. Leah, fleeing persecution from Hungary, on the way to America is passing through an Austrian village in the mountains. Rudolf, the son of the magistrate, falls in love with her and they plan to run off to the land of opportunity and religious freedom.
Unfortunately, the intolerant Schoolmaster Berthold (who harbors a secret of his own) discovers this forbidden love and offers to prove Leah is not worthy with a bribe of money. The results of this betrayal and unmitigated bigotry lead to a series of tragedies. Only Madalena, also in love with her childhood friend Rudolf, stands up for Leah but cannot stem the tide against the ingrained centuries of ignorance and hatred of the town’s people. Although the village’s priest Father Herman calls for understanding and charity, the actual villain of the play is revealed to be Jewish which only inflames the villagers more. It is possible a play like Leah, the Forsaken may do more harm than good in our current political and religious climate.
Nevertheless, while the play is startlingly not politically correct, the acting is of a high caliber. In the title role, Regina Gibson (who appeared last season in the rediscovered operetta The Golden Bride by the National Yiddish Opera Folksbiene) gives an impassioned, persuasive performance. In the ingénue roles, Jon Berry (Rudolf) and Noelia Antweiler (Madalena) are charming. Jeffrey Grover captures all of the self-righteousness of the bigoted schoolmaster Berthold. Joe Candelora as the Magistrate Lorenz and Ron Nummi as the Doctor and Barber (which he never stops telling us) give hearty, comic portrayals. The rest of the large cast of 15 also throw themselves into their respective roles.
The clever set design of the Austrian mountains and trees by Michael LeBron runs all around the four sides of the black box theater and includes sliding flats which give it a 19th century atmosphere. As always, the costumes by Sidney Fortner carry us back to this historical time period. The lighting by Samantha Davis and Patrick Mahaney is generally efficient, while Jacob Subotnick’s sound design with its thunder effects enhances the realistic production. Scott Barrow’s fight choreography is dramatic and vivid. Jonathan Allentown is responsible for the appropriate period music.
Leah, the Forsaken, written by an important playwright in the last half of the nineteenth century who contributed 100 scripts to the American theater including the now classic Under the Gaslight, is of historic value. However, in the fraught times we live in, the outcome of the play does little to convince that tolerance against bigotry is needed. Ironically, this may be the most accomplished production yet produced on the stage of Metropolitan Playhouse.
Leah, the Forsaken (through March 12, 2017)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3008 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission