Review: “A Splintered Soul” (ARLA Productions)

Eliza Stoughton, Nnik Kourtis, and Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Eliza Stoughton, Nik Kourtis, and Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Show: A Splintered Soul

Company: ARLA Productions

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

How do we know what is right? Do we weigh our choices against past experiences, or decide the best course of action based on gut instinct? Do we approach each person we meet as a friend until further evidence proves them false? How much do we depend on others to direct our moral compasses?

These questions thread through the plot of “A Splintered Soul,” Alan Lester Brooks’ drama about Holocaust survivors living in 1947 San Francisco. A Midwest premiere presented by ARLA productions, the play concerns Simon (Craig Spidle), a revered rabbi and freedom fighter from Poland. He has formed a de facto community with fellow survivors: conflicted Gerta (Eliza Stoughton), shy Mordechi (Nik Kourtis), and cynical Sol (Matt Mueller). Happy to dole out advice to any young charge, Simon eagerly adopts newcomers Harold (Curtis Edward Jackson) and Elisa (Jessica Kingsdale), a newly arrived brother and sister with immigration issues. Convinced the man who brought them into the U.S. is mistreating the pair, Simon decides to take the law into his own hands — for their sake as well as for his own.

Perhaps I have indicated too much of the plot in the above description. But Simon is primed to make destructive choices before a single character joins him onstage. Ghosts haunt the man, whispering in his ear, thanks to an evocative sound design by Christopher Kriz. We witness firsthand how past decisions keep him from communing with his law-abiding American neighbors. It helps that Spidle brings coiled strength to his portrayal of the rabbi. His righteous anger, when unfurled, betrays a quick willingness to punch above his weight class.

Director Keira Fromm draws lived-in, solid performances from her entire ensemble. She encourages lots of movement across the long and wide stage, which helps minimize the feeling that Stage 773 spaces are too cavernous to create intimate theatre. How the young adults treat the tea cups and pastries present in Simon’s home expresses a lot about them, with Mueller bouncing from seat to seat like a petulant child, and Stoughton refilling refreshments and cleaning up after all the men. When each survivor pronounces his or her truth, Fromm plants them close to the audience, so we cannot close our eyes and ears. The performers are fierce in telling their stories, but Fromm also allows them moments of quiet, so the material about concentration camps never feels exploitative or overplayed.

If only Brooks’ script felt as unpredictable. The playwright has a strong sense of dramatic structure; his characters make dynamic choices onstage that have direct and terrible consequences. But the story kept me at arm’s length, rather than drawing me deeper into Simon’s dilemma. I considered thematic questions of right and wrong, but that was because the characters argued directly about assimilation into American society, even holding a fake trial to test-drive whether or not harming a man they’ve never met is a viable option. “A Splintered Soul” asks the audience to believe that absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence. Simon never confronts Harold and Elisa’s terrible mentor onstage, so one suspects far too early on that there is more to the newbies’ backstories than what we have been told.

Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz
Craig Spidle/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting design work in concert to contrast Simon’s everyday living room and the world of his mind. Sprayed with harsh white light, his memories provide little comfort, except when the voice of his deceased wife calls. The lights then shift to a warm yellow highlighting her portrait. Perhaps this combination of choices would seem over the top in a less emotionally fraught production. Here, it sharply highlights the fragile state of Simon’s psyche.

Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes deftly communicate quick emotional transformations, especially in the case of Stoughton. Over the course of the play, she and the siblings spruce up, adopting more and more American styles of dress, leaving behind the more traditional looks displayed by Simon and Mordechi. The implication seems to be that these men are too haunted to move on from the past.

Overall, this is an accomplished production; it contains well-wrought performances, considered design elements, sensitive direction, and complex moral questions. Perhaps if the script were a bit messier, a bit less geared towards one pivotal discovery, the experience would be shattering. As it is, “Splintered” gives the audience pause. But it may not shatter anyone’s soul.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Smart, sensitive direction and design work strengthen predictable story.

RATING: d10 — “Worth  Going To”