Review: “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle ” (Chicago Immersive Theatre)

Andrew Bailes and Nicole Bloomsmith/Photo by Nicole Bloomsmith.

Because Chicago audiences are unlikely to have seen Chicago Immersive Theater’s brand of collaborative problem solving theater, I want to be careful not to divulge too much about their “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle” premiere. Creators Jacqueline Stone, Anderson Lawfer, Nicole Bloomsmith and Becca Braun have conceived a sweet, site-specific adventure that’s perfect if you have a multitude of young and old charges, spanning the faith spectrum. Director Jacqueline Stone and the creative team have ensured there is something to keep minds and hands occupied around every corner. 

In this immersive experience, audiences are greeted by Irving Walker (Anderson Lawfer) and Sir Cyrus (Julian Stroop), two time-travelers spanning the centuries with one mission: find a priceless menorah treasured by Irving’s wife Grace (Nicole Bloomsmith), lost for generations. Clues to its whereabouts have been hidden in the past, so we must visit as many previous December eighths as possible, looking for locked safes and the clues that will open them. So they don’t end up creating a paradox, Walker is sending the audience in his place with Cyrus to explore his wife’s past and locate the menorah. There may be hints with their daughter Sarah (Laura Nelson) and her wife Ruth (Becca Braun), or with Grace’s 1950s vaudevillian Grandfather Eli (Dan Cobbler), or her Holocaust era great-grandparents Mildred (also Bloomsmith) and Jonathan (Andrew Bailes).

Think of it like a series of escape rooms, or a very gentle LARP that even the youngest members of a cozy audience could grasp and participate in. It’s the sort of environment built to encourage collaboration, speaking up, and obeying the “yes, and” principal of improvisation when a time-jumping anomaly asks for your help. To move on in each pocket of time, you have to remember numbers, phrases, and hebrew symbols symbols, and use them to decode your next steps. You might also be invited to share something small, like a joke or a dance, with your group. Any audience member who is well versed in story structure can see what will happen before it does, but performers cue an atmosphere of patience and generosity; the puzzle isn’t solved until the smallest of us understands it. 

Julian Stroop and Anderson Lawfer/ Photo by Nicole Bloomsmith.

Aside from our central conflict against time, each character pairing we see is a solid example of loving marriage or working partnership. Anderson Lawfer as Irving Walker and Julian Stroop as Sir Cyrus are unflappable time professionals and devoted friends, with Stroop’s mad-scientist musings forwarding the whole experiment. Dan Cobbler turns to us as Eli Applebaum, a new comedian on the vaudeville circuit who just needs some new material to set him apart. Other wholesome pairings include Becca Braun as the Rabbi Ruth with Laura Nelson as Sarah,  a patient school teacher and wife to Ruth. There is nothing as sweet as the pairing of Andrew Bailes as Jonathan and Nicole Bloomsmith as Mildred, a couple escaping the holocaust, but who can still surprise each other with little gifts and love notes. 

For every jaded attendee, like myself, whose sense of wonderment has been whittled down to a nub, and is just content to have a pleasant afternoon, there are attendees for whom this experience will feel essential and aesthetic informing. This show is absolutely for them. 

DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Get lost in the past to find a Hanukkah treasure. 

Show: “Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle”

Company: Chicago Immersive Theatre

Venue: Grace Lutheran Church (1430 South Blvd Evanston, IL)