Memory, aging, death, theater, ghostly visitations and closely held secrets are some of the themes running through “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison,” a play originally produced by the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago and now being presented at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
According to playwright Abbie Phillips, the project grew out of the radio series “One People, Many Stories,” which she produced with her friend, Johanna Cooper. The series included classic Jewish children’s stories from around the world.
They eventually wanted to “theatricalize” the stories and obtained a grant to create the play, although Cooper did not live to see the project come to fruition.
Phillips ultimately decided to create an original piece that would become “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison,” collaborating with four other writers at Lookingglass: Nicola Berhrman, David Kersnar, Heidi Stillman and Andy White.
“And I sort of came up with this framework that we used in the end, which is really based on my mother’s life, which was one of creativity and loss. It’s not point for point, but the arc of that story is really my mother’s story,” she said.
Phillips recalled that her mother was a great pianist: “She used to write the program notes for the L.A. Philharmonic and had this very creative life. And then she had four kids and a young doctor husband who had just come out of World War II in the Pacific for four years, and she sort of became the president of the Sisterhood and drove carpools and kind of put her creative side at rest.
“She just did not talk about her great, first love that died in the war,” Phillips added. “There are all sorts of things about her life that we never really found out till she was close to death.”
Also close to death and harboring a secret about her first love is the main character in “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison.” As the play begins, we meet feisty, 87-year-old Lilith Fisher (Mindy Sterling), who is estranged from her son and is particularly sarcastic in resisting the presence in her home of Pakistani caretaker Menelik Khan
(Usman Ally), sent by Jewish Family Service.
Present and past intermingle as Lilith relives her youth in Poland, when she was a religious, 17-year-old Jewish girl named Lilka Kadison (Brittany Uomoleale). It is 1939, and Lilka meets Ben Ari Adler (Nicholas Cutro), a handsome young traveling magician, performer and storyteller, who stages shows with his Yiddish toy theater. When he finds out that Lilka is a poet, he enlists her to help him write the story of Solomon and Sheba for a toy theater performance. They hold secret meetings in a cemetery, and he begins to free her spirit.
“She’s very serious all the time, and she has to take care of her family,” Sterling, the only Jewish member of the cast, said of her character. “She doesn’t really have time to let go and have fun and get to play, and here he introduces her to the theater, introduces her to dance, introduces her to laughter and introduces her to being creative.”
At one point, Ben and Lilka hear the sound of marching boots as the Nazis invade Poland. Lilka runs home to her family, only to find they are gone. She and Ben hide out in a barn and begin to fall in love, but their time together is cut short. Ben leaves to get some food one day and never returns. She finds her way to America, marries and keeps their relationship a secret.
But Ben’s ghost comes to her in these last days, insisting that she tell someone about him.
“The Book of Life is about to be sealed and I ain’t in it,” he says.
“It’s this universal need, a human need to have your name remembered, to know that you existed,” Phillips said.
But is the ghost genuine or a figment of Lilith’s imagination and dreams?
“I personally like to think that there is a little bit of a ghost that she can see,” Sterling said. “Between that and between her losing herself, I think it’s kind of a nice thing to think that there’s somebody or something that is pushing her to reveal, and really pushing her to let go so that everyone can be at peace.”
Phillips acknowledged that the play is permeated with an aura of magical realism as some of the ghost’s actions seem to actually affect objects in Lilith’s room.
“The things in her study are kind of a landscape of her memories and the things that she’s trying to forget, and some of it comes alive, and things fly in the air,” Phillips said. “It’s definitely a magical, heightened experience. “
Phillips also said the production includes elements of what it was like to live in Eastern Europe during the 1930s, a subject of particular interest to the playwright. Phillips, who referred to herself as the product of a very active, Reform Jewish family, has been involved in Jewish education and music for years. She is currently board president of the Yiddish cultural and educational center Yiddishkayt.
“So many of the artists that have inspired me have been Jewish,” Phillips said. “The European Jewish experience is one of embracing modernity, and then making their own art from it, in one way or another. And that path has been greatly inspiring to me.”
For tickets and information about “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison,” visit falcontheatre.com.