The Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre is putting on playwright Neil Simon’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Lost in Yonkers.
Unlike Simon’s typical light-hearted plays, Lost in Yonkers binds heavy drama with realism and comedic relief.
“Out of all of Neil Simon’s plays, this has the most layers,” said director Lynn Weintraub. “It’s a realistic portrayal with funny bits to offset the pathos.”
The play is set in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1942 and tells the story of teenage brothers Arty and Jay Kurnitz, who live with their cruel grandmother and absent-minded Aunt Bella, while their father travels south to look for work.
The play delves into pertinent themes, such as survival, loss, maternal love and the inevitable notion that we are all products of our upbringing. Despite the fact that the play is set in the 1940s, its relevance is timeless.
It’s about “how we take care of each other, how we hurt each other (and) how we get in each others’ way,” Weintraub said.
For her, directing this play is coming full circle. She started her career with the Leah Posluns Theatre, another Jewish community theatre company, where she primarily worked as an actor. Her first assistant directing job was with director Al Waxman and rehearsals were held at the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, the same place where Lost in Yonkers is rehearsing.
The play begins with the dysfunctional family in a tableau, which will be filtered by black-and-white lights, to create the illusion of an old photograph.
“It’s meant to represent that we’re putting this family onto this backdrop today and then another day it might be a different family,” Weintraub said. She took a more abstract approach to make the characters emblematic of any family.
When the production begins, the black-and-white photograph will come to life and, by the end, the photo album will be figuratively closed and returned to the history archives.
For Susan Finlayson, playing the role of Grandma Kurnitz evokes memories of her own grandmother.
“She had a very hard life. I channel my grandmother.… I saw the pain in her. She grew up in a Russian shtetl,” Finlayson said. Similarly, Grandma Kurnitz is a tough character who also had a difficult time immigrating to America from Germany.
Weintraub expects the audience will internalize the characters’ stories, too. Whether they immigrated to Canada or are members of a dysfunctional family, this play will feel familiar to people from all walks of life, she said.
The Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre will be staging Lost in Yonkers from August 7-15 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. To purchase tickets, visit teatrontheatre.com.