Family dinners, particularly those organized around holidays, are a staple of stage and screen for a reason: there's great potential for drama, soul-searching and for characters to grow.
But it's not just any dinner that brings together the family at the center of Ali Viterbi's play "In Every Generation" — it's not even just one dinner that we see, but several millennia of a meal with tremendous meaning. The play explores the Jewish Passover Seder through the story of the Levi-Katz family, seen gathering in the present, past and future.
TheatreWorks presents the West Coast premiere of "In Every Generation" through Feb. 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The play had its world premiere in 2022 in Chicago.
Director Michael Barakiva said that TheatreWorks Artistic Director Tim Bond, with whom he is a longtime collaborator, asked him to read the script for "In Every Generation." "It was love at first stage direction," Barakiva recalled of his introduction to the play.
"In Every Generation" made an impression on Barakiva for numerous reasons.
"The play is truly a masterpiece because it is, on the one hand, a totally relatable living room comedy-drama. And on the other hand, it is a theatrical epic masterpiece about the history of the Passover, the seder and the Jewish people," Barakiva said.
But he noted, knowledge of Passover traditions isn't needed to appreciate the show.
"If you know the world in which it's set, you have an extraordinary appreciation for nuance and detail. And if you're not familiar with the world, you're welcomed into this entire experience," he said.
We meet the Levi-Katzes during the family's Seder feast in 2019, when there's tension in the air. Somewhat reluctantly hosting the dinner is Valeria, grappling with a divorce from her rabbi husband, who is not in attendance. Also present are her two 20-something daughters, Dev, who has recently moved home after graduating college and as an adopted child, is trying to find a balance between her Chinese heritage and her upbringing; and Yael, currently in college and full of ideas that she's eager to share. Valeria's elderly parents, Paola and Davide, round out the guests.
"The play is full of the kind of delicious conflict that we expect from theater. But there are no villains: everybody in the play is right, everybody's perspective is valued and cherished and presented authentically," Barakiva said. "So when one character is talking, you totally believe what they're saying and you agree with them, and then a moment later, this other character contradicts them and you believe that character, too."
Not only does the play offer shifting perspectives at one dinner table, it time travels as well. We also see family members several decades in the future, and about 50 years in the past. A final time jump goes back to the beginnings of the Seder. The same actors play the same characters — or their ancestors — throughout.
Barakiva said that the challenges of bringing a story to life that's set in so many different time periods is ensuring that the future or the distant past, for that matter, doesn't look "ridiculous." Helping those scenes stay grounded are items used at the Seder that are passed along through the generations, such as a cup or candlestick.
Seeing Passover traditions through the lens of multiple generations also highlights how the traditions and the people who practice them have endured.
"One of the things that the play asks us to remember is how extraordinary it is that the Jewish people have been observing many of the same holidays in many of the same ways for literally thousands of years," Barakiva said.
"It's amazing to think that the Hebrew that is said in the play is the Hebrew that my great-great- great-great-great-great-ancestors said thousands of years ago — literally the same words. When you think about that, the language and the ritual becomes its own form of time travel."
"In Every Generation" runs through Feb. 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets start at $30. For more information, visit theatreworks.org.