The Levi-Katz family holds a seder, from the Chicago production of "In Every Generation." (Photo/Liz Lauren)
The Levi-Katz family holds a seder, from the Chicago production of "In Every Generation." (Photo/Liz Lauren)

Passover in January: ‘In Every Generation’ comes to Mountain View stage

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Passover is coming early in 2023. So early that the first seder is taking place just a few weeks after Hanukkah — on a local stage, that is.

“In Every Generation,” a play about members of an Italian Jewish family who gather at different times in history to celebrate Passover together, will make its West Coast premiere next month. The TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production will run Jan. 18 through Feb. 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. During the play, actors will conduct realistic (if slightly abridged) seders, singing “Dayenu” and eating matzah and other Passover food.

“I’ve done a couple of shows where the fact of a character’s religious and ethnic heritage were important, but I’ve not done a show where we’re actually creating the ritual on stage,” said Cindy Goldfield, a San Francisco–based actor who appears in the play. “And we’re actually speaking Hebrew.”

“In Every Generation,” which won the 2019 National Jewish Playwriting Contest, unfolds in four parts and follows the Levi-Katz family from 2019, back to 1953, forward to 2050 and all the way back to Mount Sinai.

Ali Viterbi
Ali Viterbi

In a recent interview with J., playwright Ali Viterbi described it as a “mystical, time-traveling journey through Jewish history and through our contemporary understanding of what it means to be a Jew.” The play also touches on the question of who is a Jew, the persistence of antisemitism through history and the impact of intergenerational trauma.

The theatrical experience will be unique for both the actors and audiences, according to director Michael Barakiva. On top of the time travel, some sections of the play will be performed entirely in Hebrew and Italian, with supertitles projected onto the proscenium and different parts of the stage. And then there’s the fact that the actors eat a Passover meal on stage during the first act.

The script’s very first stage direction reads: “This is a Passover Seder. All rituals and prayers should be observed, all food should be consumed. And this is a Jewish family — no one leaves the table with an empty plate.”

Barakiva said he and the stage manager will be incorporating food into rehearsals from the beginning to help the actors get accustomed to eating and reciting their lines.

(When “In Every Generation” was produced for the first time last spring in Chicago, “the actors got their dinner every night on stage,” Viterbi said. “Hopefully the food is good [in the new production].” As for the audience, she said, “I want them to be able to smell the food; it invites them into the experience.”)

Barakiva, who has Jewish and Armenian heritage, said he was drawn to the play in part because it includes characters with complex identities.

Sarah Lo (foreground) in the earlier Chicago production of "In Every Generation." (Photo/Liz Lauren)
Sarah Lo (foreground) in the earlier Chicago production of “In Every Generation.” (Photo/Liz Lauren)

“Jewishness is really central to all of the characters’ experiences, but also the character of Dev is Chinese and queer and adopted, and the matriarch and the patriarch are also Italian, so there’s an enormous amount of intersectionality in identity,” Barakiva said. “The other thing that’s been really interesting is to see how the Sephardic Italian Jewish experience is different than the one I was brought up in, which is very Ashkenazi.” (Sarah Lo, who played Dev in the Chicago production, will reprise her role in the TheatreWorks show. Lo, who is not Jewish, grew up in San Francisco.)

As for why the show was scheduled several months before Passover is actually celebrated, Barakiva explained, “Except for maybe ‘A Christmas Carol,’ it’s rare to use when a play is set as criteria for when it is performed.”

Viterbi, 30, began writing “In Every Generation” in 2017 following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which participants chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

“It was just starting to be clear that antisemitism was on the rise and it got me thinking about what happened to the Israelites after they left Egypt, when they were no longer oppressed but were not entirely free either,” she said. “There is a line in the haggadah that we are obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt, and I found that to be a remarkable piece of text and that line became the frame for this story.”

In a statement to J., Tim Bond, TheatreWorks’ artistic director, wrote: “We are honored to produce the West Coast premiere of Ali Viterbi’s play celebrating Jewish culture and traditions through the lens of the Levi-Katz family. With the rise of antisemitism and hate crimes over the last few years around the globe, we hope this innovative and hopeful story will be a catalyst for vital discussion and healing.”

Passover has been Viterbi’s favorite holiday since she was a child in San Diego. “It was my family’s big holiday of the year, and I always thought there was so much theatricality and pageantry to it,” she said, adding that she used to write short skits for her sisters and cousins to perform during the seder.

She pursued her love for storytelling at Yale, where she majored in theater studies (and also studied Italian, which her paternal grandparents and father speak), and at UC San Diego, from which she received an MFA in playwriting in 2020. She has written several other plays with Jewish characters, including “The World to Come,” which is set at a Jewish home for the aged during the apocalypse.

“I feel very proud to write Jewish stories, but also very excited to see Jewish stories surrounding me,” she said. “We’re seeing complicated Jewish narratives on screen and on stage now, and I think that’s amazing — and there’s so much more room to grow.”

Cindy Goldfield
Cindy Goldfield

Goldfield, the local actor who plays first-generation American Valeria in “In Every Generation,” said she has had to brush up her language skills in preparation for this role. For her audition, she recited the Ten Plagues in both Hebrew and Italian. “It’s rusty, I won’t lie,” she said about her Hebrew.

How does she feel about having to eat on stage? “It will be interesting to see how much food is actually consumed,” she said.

While this play would seem to hold a special appeal for Jewish theatergoers, Goldfield, 59, said there are elements of the story that will resonate with non-Jews, too. “There’s a lot of ordinary family dynamics,” she said. “It’s kind of like watching a movie set during Thanksgiving, where Thanksgiving is the vehicle by which the story is being told. Hopefully the universality of ritual and celebration is accessible for all audiences.”

“In Every Generation”

Jan. 18 to Feb. 12 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. $30-$95.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.