“We Are the Levinsons,” which is receiving its world premiere at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, features a running gag about tongue sandwiches, but a sandwich of a different sort is at the heart of Wendy Kout’s domestic drama. It details the phenomenon of the “sandwich generation” — adults caring for both children and aging parents — through the lens of one family’s momentous year.
The play opens as an elderly couple wind down a birthday celebration. Lil, played with buoyant verve by Nancy Marvy, intersperses outbursts of song with nagging worry about her daughter Rosie and their rocky relationship. Robert Dorfman provides a steadying foil as her gently humorous and tolerant husband, Lenny. The two create a lovely portrait of a devoted yet pragmatic couple who have learned to balance each other’s ups and downs.
This lighthearted scene takes a sharp turn when Rosie (Melinda Kordich) arrives unexpectedly to surprise Lil for her birthday. The fractures in their relationship are put on full display as long-simmering resentments lead to barbed comments and substantial dollops of guilt and recrimination.
Each successive scene leaps forward a few months in time as we watch the Levinsons battle through a series of upheavals. Lil’s unexpected death is followed by Lenny’s accelerating decline into dementia. Rosie finds herself struggling to care for her father while negotiating a prickly relationship with her daughter Sara (Adelin Phelps) that mirrors her conflicts with her own mother. There’s also an outsider thrown into this volatile mix — caregiver Grace (Alyssa DiVirgilio), viewed as a savior by Rosie and a threat by Lenny because she’s transgender.
Playwright Kout tempers this emotionally fraught subject matter with large doses of humor; even the grimmest moments of Lenny’s mental deterioration are peppered with quips and barbed jokes. It’s a clever technique that underlines this family’s indomitable instinct for survival. Short, pointed scenes and director Kurt Schweickhardt’s sprightly pacing also keep this intermission-less production from bogging down.
While “Levinsons” succeeds on most levels, the role of Grace presents a challenge. Unlike Kout’s finely drawn portraits of the flawed and multilayered family, she embodies a level of perfection that feels contrived. Even her back story — a painful rejection by her family, her desire for a child — fails to lend her the same sense of fullness the other characters embody. It’s an unfortunate shortcoming in an otherwise thoughtful and compelling evening.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.