“Seder,” Sarah Gancher’s politically charged family drama, is receiving a world premiere production at Hartford Stage. Under the astute direction of Elizabeth Williamson, “Seder” is a quietly and insidiously unnerving play that only gradually reveals itself to the audience. Headed by the magnificent and highly versatile Mia Dillon, Sarah Gancher’s play is the kind of theatrical experience that will get under your skin and stay with you long after the final curtain.
Taking place in Hungary in 2002, “Seder” focuses on the opening of the “House of Terror” museum, a place where people were once tortured and killed in during the war, and how its legacy remains in the dark shadows of a family’s past. And while this play at Hartford Stage is slightly overlong (about 100 minutes, with no intermission) and not quite perfect, its overall effect is devastating.
This is not to say that there isn’t humor in this show, because there are most definitely laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Also, Sarah Gancher is a savvy enough writer to frame the entire play through the actual experience, against all odds, of having a seder. She has also written multi-dimensional characters that one can truly care about. The first two characters that one sees are the delightful Julia Sirna-Frest, as Margit, and the slightly frightening Dustin Ingram, as her brother Laci. Their opening scene is actually filled with rowdy laughter, drawing the audience into the play.
The seven member cast in “Seder” is generally excellent. Julia Sirna-Frest’s Margit is the real bright spot in the play, especially in her drive to finish the seder, once it has begun. Steven Rattazzi is very funny and appealing as Margit’s American friend, David, who leads the seder, and some of his pronunciations of words are hilarious.
Moving into a darker realm is Dustin Ingram’s Laci, whose present occupation is more than a little sketchy, and his character makes quite a contrast to his sister Margit. As the third sibling, Birgit Huppuch’s Judit is extremely complex as the estranged daughter in the family and this actress pulls this difficult role off superbly.
As a figure from the past, the terrific Jeremy Webb, whom I saw to such fine effect in the Off-Broadway musical, “The Glorious Ones,” nearly a decade ago, is truly terrifying as Attila, a ruthless general, who appears in flashbacks. Attila’s relationship with Mia Dillon, as Erzsike, the matriarch of the family, is slowly revealed, as the play unfolds. Liam Craig is sympathetic as the sad-sack character of Tamas, the heavy drinking husband of Erzsike, and, like Webb, he makes appearances in scenes from a former time.
And then there is Mia Dillon as Erzsike. This actress was wonderful in Hartford Stage’s production of “Cloud 9” and she is just as good here, possessing the uncanny ability of looking both older and younger, as needed, as “Seder” goes back in forth in time. One can see Dillon as she appears at the seder in 2002 and then at various ages in flashbacks. This actress is brilliant playing this character, managing to be both understandable and guilty, as secrets of her past during the war literally come back to haunt her.
Nick Vaughan imposing set is visible from the moment the audience arrives at the theatre, and there are various playing areas onstage that the characters occupy. Ilona Somogyi’s costume design is evocative and the expert lighting design by Marcus Dilliard is invaluable in signaling changes in time during the play. Just from its title, “Seder” almost sounds like it will be a lightweight family comedy, which it most certainly is not. Instead, playwright Sarah Gancher has written a play that confronts political history in a family and how it seeps into and affects the present. Indeed, “Seder” is certainly a bold new work and here’s hoping that it will have a future beyond its run at Hartford Stage.
“Seder” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through November 12, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: (L-R): Birgit Huppuch, Mia Dillon, Dustin Ingram, Julia Sirna-Frest, and Steven Rattazzi
Photo by T. Charles Erickson