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A synagogue deals with a shrinking congregation in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 'Shul'

Sarah Whiting

Sarah Whiting

At one point in Shul, a Jewish congregation’s young leader, Abe (Avi Aharoni), checks his phone. “I got a text,” he says.

“So do I!” quips a devout elder (Charles Numrich), hoisting a dusty book.

That groaner gets the play’s biggest laugh, and thanks to director Robert Dorfman’s laudable control of tone, the gag also feels poignant. The older man, Ezra, doesn’t want to reverse technological change. He’s simply taking pride in his own identity, and his community’s history.

In Sheldon Wolf’s play, now in a world-premiere production by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, that community is shrinking nearly to the vanishing point.

With visible holes appearing in the synagogue roof, Abe has assembled his congregants to vote on options. Heidi (Dexieng Yang), a real estate agent, has a potential buyer (Jôher Coleman) with a Sikh group ready to move in and, literally, get cooking.

It’s a complex challenge, one facing congregations of many faiths as religious participation declines. At its best, Shul embraces the tension between its characters’ humility—they know the world doesn’t revolve around them—and their justifiable pride in a tradition and a place that’s shaped their lives. As the play progresses, though, we start to wish we could hear that kind of complex authenticity from voices originating outside the synagogue walls, too.

Dorfman, a hugely accomplished actor making his overdue directorial debut, has assembled a powerful ensemble cast; there could hardly be a better group of actors to portray this congregation. Among the artists are Guthrie stars like Nathaniel Fuller, whose character descended from a congregation founder but whose relationship with his family is troubled. Raye Birk and Nancy Marvy play a wry pair of stalwarts, clear-eyed but fighting to stay the course. They’re counterposed with the more whimsical Friedman, a role in which Paul Schoenack channels a classic sad-clown gravity.

We feel we know these people and this place, a vital institution facing its twilight. Unfortunately, Wolf isn’t as sympathetic when it comes to the synagogue’s visitors.

The Sikh buyer comes and goes without making much of an impact beyond some respectfully proffered exposition. Given the congregants’ attitude toward his faith—ignorance bordering, in some cases, on intolerance—the character feels like a missed opportunity. Real estate agent Heidi fares even worse, written as shrill and shallow. Her past romance with Abe is played for elbow-dig yuks; Heidi’s view of Abe’s religious awakening is far less rosy than his own, and we never learn enough about why.

Shul is a warm portrait of a challenged community of faith, but the playwright’s frame could use some expansion. 

Shul
Highland Park Community Center
1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul 651-647-4315;
through May 19