“Be careful what you wish for” might be the phrase that best captures the sentiment at the core of Anna Ziegler’s new play The Wanderers, which depicts the quiet dissolution of two marriages as a result of a yearning for something – some vague, undefined thing – more. And – because this is a play about both religious and secular Jews, and the title is an overt reference to the forty years’ that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness – I should probably add “and accept what is bashert.”
Schmuli (Nick Lehane) and Esther (Moira Quigley) belong to the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community; their marriage, in the early 1970s, is an arranged one that is troubled from the start by Esther’s small rebellions against the rules and traditions that circumscribe what she is allowed to do and be. When she floats the idea of using birth control so that she can pursue other interests besides raising children, the otherwise gentle and meek Schmuli allows the Rebbe to impose a punishment so severe that it forces Esther to take their newborn son and divorce herself from both Schmuli and the religious community.
Secular Jew Abe (Jed Resnick) and bi-racial Black-Jewish Sophie (Allison Strickland) have known each other since childhood – both were raised by mothers who left the Hasidic community and who remained close friends on the ‘outside.’ In 2015 their marriage is tested when Abe, who is an award-winning novelist, gets a fan message from famous movie star Julia Cheever (Sarah Goeke) and embarks on a secret text and email flirtation with her. His correspondence with Julia opens up wounds in himself and in his marriage that aren’t readily healed.
Ziegler cuts up these two marriage stories and assembles them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The writing craft here is admirable: she organically spools out the relationship between the two couples in a way that doesn’t feel like an artificial construction of suspense or mystery but rather serves as a means of carefully building up the layers of legacy, loss, and betrayals of trust that spur the characters’ desires. And because Ziegler assembles the puzzle with such finesse, the piece that changes the picture toward the end of the play has a surprising and devastating effect.
This being a play about Jewish agon, it’s also quite funny. Abe is the self-castigating neurotic type (think Woody Allen before we all hated him), and Resnick fleshes out the stereotype with wry sensitivity. The other characters have their flashes of humor and quirk as well, in particular Esther, whom Quigley gives a stubborn but good-natured need to question everything. Lehane brings humanity and warmth to his portrayal of the pious, rule-bound Schmuli, and Strickland and Goeke layer subtle complexities into the characters of Sophie and Julia.
Layers and layering are echoed in the production’s design and directing. The spare scenic design, by Anne Mundell, evokes the stone lattice of an Islamic temple, with a balcony above that director Colette Robert uses to suture together both time and space. Particularly effective is her staging of the scenes of text and email conversation between Abe and Julia: jettisoning the usual “eyes forward” stage convention for such exchanges, she lets the characters speak directly to each other, often in the same space, capturing, in their eye contact and emotional connection, the kind of intense feeling of direct communication we often feel when engaged in an extended text message exchange. Mindy Eshelman’s costuming also picks up the theme of complex layers as a way of connecting the characters across the generational and cultural divide: the ritually prescribed formal layers of dress of the Hasidic characters are echoed and contrasted by the casual and schlumpy layered look favored by the hipster secular characters.
All those layers invite you to think about what they are intended to hide or protect, and about all the externalities that lead people to feel restless, bored, dissatisfied, and discontented, because there is some “more” to be had “somewhere out there”. In the end, as both couples come closer to understanding that what’s on the outside may be neither the source of, nor the solution to, their dissatisfaction, it becomes increasingly clear that, more often that not, happiness is wanting what you already have.
Or, as Esther puts it: “let us feel how fortunate we are.” Accept what is bashert, and you can stop wandering in the wilderness.