Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why High Holidays?

Posted by Artistic Director Robert Falls

I have been a fan of Alan Gross’ work since my early days in the Chicago theater. In the late 1970s he established himself as one of our city’s truly original voices with such plays as Lunching and The Man in 605, using his mordant wit and expansive humanity to examine in loving, sometimes savage detail the vagaries of human relationships. Although he continued writing plays for both the stage and screen, he has also explored other literary forms, where his finely observed musings on human actions and emotions have brought him particular success,
not surprisingly, in the world of poetry.

When Alan returned from a stint in Hollywood several years ago, I encouraged him to write what would eventually become High Holidays. I think it is his best work to date, containing both the subversive humor and passionate characterizations that distinguished his earlier plays, but with a newly forged maturity and command. Drawing from memories of his Chicago boyhood, Alan has captured the tensions, the celebrations and the uncertainties that are familiar to all of us. He examines the complexities of the relationships—between husband and wife, parent and son, brother and brother—that are echoed in every family. In his own words, Alan notes that “what emerged was a story about growing up—all of its joys, challenges and disappointments—and ultimately, what it takes to become a man.”

The distinctive humor and humanity of Alan Gross have been missing from our stages for far too long. It is a great pleasure to welcome him back.

-Robert Falls

We’d love to know what you thought about High Holidays! Please share your comments about the play with us, below!


  1. Good show. Casting was on target as usual. We are not Jewish and felt the themes were universal. The Owen always has thoughtful productions

  2. Speaking for myself but representing the views of many other show attendees I was highly disappointed in this play. Let me count the ways:
    1- Not representative of the times or place (I know - I was there). Yes, of course there were abusive mothers who swore and father's who slapped their kids, but the jumping from defending to abusing their kids was too much.
    2- Several inconsistencies-
    The peace sign was not used so commonly flashed in 1963 by Indiana freshman students and their 13 year old brothers, neither was marijuana as ubiquitous (in Skokie!) as the play pre-suppposed. If the father was born the same year as Anne Frank (1929), wasn't he a bit young to fight in the Battle of the Bulge? Also, if he had a football from Marshall High School and they say it is 36 years old (take good care of it!), and let's say he was 18 then, what year was he born?

    I do not think I am being too sensitive as a Jew growing up in this place at this time, but I do take issue with anyone coming away from this show thinking this had any universal message. I think the playwright had a lousy childhood for whatever reason and just had to finally get off his chest whatever he had not yet processed from his life.

    Finally - the actors were not convincing enough to make me feel they were real people. I've seen these themes addressed elsewhere with much more painful truths exposed yet empathy shown to make the audience care.

    As a 25 year plus subscriber to Goodman Theatre I simply did not feel this play was up to the caliber I expect from Goodman.

  3. Thank you for your response to HIGH HOLIDAYS; as you can imagine, this play has engendered a number of passionate responses, both from people who applauded the play's central themes and those who were less satisfied with the play's depiction of one family's experiences in 1963. Although HIGH HOLIDAYS is not strictly autobiographical, playwright Alan Gross did draw heavily from his own family experiences in the creation of this piece, and feels that the play is a true depiction of those personal experiences and how they centered on his central theme, the idea of what it is to become a man. In answer to some of the other issues that you raise:

    1. Although the peace sign was not in general use until the campus demonstrations of the later 1960s, it was indeed used prior to that (as early as 1958, in fact) by some campus radicals, figures who were obviously being emulated by the character Rob. This is also true of the use of marijuana in the play; although that drug became more commonplace later on, it was used by some people, including both musicians and college students, much earlier on, especially both by members of the "beat" movement of the 1950s, which eventually segued into the campus radical movements of the 1960s. While neither of these would have been commonplace in Skokie in 1963, they would have been more so in large college towns such as Bloomington, Indiana, which is where Rob has been living for the past few months.

    2. Although the father in HIGH HOLIDAYS does say that he is the same age as Anne Frank, he never refers exactly to having had the same birth year. It's probably safe to assume that he entered the military upon his graduation from high school, and that he could have been as young as 18 or 19 to have fought in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 or early 1945. This would have made his birth date several years before that of Anne Frank's, but would put him, at least in his own mind, in the same generation as her. The football was indeed Nate's high school football, but it is not 36 years old at the time of the play; Essie refers to a baseball glove that Billy ruined seven years before as being "36 years old" at the time it was ruined, which meant that it was probably Nate's childhood glove.

    I'm sorry that you didn't find more universal messages in the play; although some audiences certainly agree with you, others have found many echoes in this story with their own childhoods and families, and have commented on the fact that, though these characters were sometimes harsh in their treatment of each other, they felt very true to the experiences of those viewers. It is these differences of opinion and experience that have made HIGH HOLIDAYS an interesting experience for us at the Goodman--and I thank you again for sharing your ideas with us.

    Steve Scott
    Associate Producer

  4. We subscribe to Writer's Theatre, Steppenwolf, Timeline Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and Lyric Opera. At one time we were subscribers to Goodman, but now I know why we do not spend the time and effort to go there.

    This was absolutely the worse play we have ever seen! It was insulting and very anti-Jewish. The "throwing in" of Yiddish words was NEVER done like that and Jewish parents being depicted as being that violent and awful to their children is disgusting. My husband thought the 2nd act would be better. When it was just as bad (or worse), we walked out before it ended.

    Why don't you close it before more non-Jews get an even worse picture of "us" than they had before!

  5. I really regret seeing this at the end of its run because I won't be able to tell too many people to race over and see it. Mr. Gross has written a extremely accurate picture of middle class Jewish life in a Chicago suburb in the 1960's but it really could be any Jewish enclave in the United States. I kept thinking, "I've heard this before. I was raised on this."
    One brilliantly written line follows another and each of the actors handles both humor and drama very well. I was very impressed how deftly the parents handled Yiddish phrases with totally correct pronunciation.
    By the way, I thought it was only my mother who used a bedroom slipper for behavioral modification therapy

  6. Despite its occasional insights and dark humor, the play’s major impact was to offend. There were moments of moving drama, particularly the exchange between the father and Rob on the pain each suffers, in his own way, with respect to the memories of the Holocaust and other genocides. The scenes between the two brothers had a certain genuineness.

    But the constant string of Yiddishisms quickly became clichéd, particularly out of the mouths of actors not comfortable with their sounds and rhythms. Each of the characters was a stereotype – the hard-working father frustrated by his subservience to his own father. The emasculating mother whose own dreams were stifled by her predetermined role as wife and mother. The not-so-bright kid who is the whipping boy for his father’s frustrations. The older son rebelling at the role his parents have set for him. The actors did the best they could – older son Rob was the most believable – but they never rose beyond the stereotypes. The foul mouths were jarring; it seemed utterly incongruous that a Jewish mother, indeed almost any mother, would speak so profanely to a 12 year old kid then or now.

    More clichés: Jews don’t drink. Jews (at least then) think schwartzes and Hispanics are dirty. The mental and physical abuse of the father; the overprotective mother. Period references to Freedom Riders.

    A play that requires a glossary to be understood by a general audience already knows it has a writing problem. (If you’re going to do it, you may as well throw in a few more – shpilkes [ants in the pants],schmendrick [ne’er do well], boychick [derisive term for kid], or the whole of The Joys of Yiddish. And no one ever said “Don’t plotz.” To plotz is a feeling, not an action.

    I grew up during roughly the same period in roughly the same environment and, while Yiddish, a vivid and expressive language, was often heard, it was never to the extent used in this play, particularly by those born here. Even if it was the case in the Gross household, a little more creativity in the writing could have accomplished similar ends with fewer use of terms obscure to the average theater-goer. In other words, Jewish audiences might be offended; gentile ones won’t get it.

    Two other points (spoiler alert): Program notes identify the play as taking place in the “early 60s”. In fact, the precision of the time, in late 1963, become essential to the conclusion. Surely the playwright could have signaled the time in the course of the play or the program notes should have said so.

    Finally, the subtle oedipal relationship between mother and son – was that nude scene really necessary? -- was icky and unnecessary to the story. Mothers show love for their children all the time without these implications that detract from the story.

    Ultimately this is a lazy work. Gross seems to have scribbled a bunch of note cards labeled “scenes from my childhood,” and another with “Yiddish expressions,” strung them together more or less around a story line, and called it a play. It doesn’t work. A clever storyteller would stop at the threat of violence to create the effect; here it continues to actual violence. Or there would be the implication of tearing off the son’s clothes; here she actually does it for a cheap laugh.

    Is it supposed to be a comedy with dramatic overtones or a drama with comic relief? High Holidays can’t decide and, as a result, falls flat.