The headstrong characters in Ernest Joselovitz's new play are engaged in a psychological battle over "Jesse's Land," a prosperous dairy farm in the Connecticut River Valley. At its best, the drama, on view at the New Playwrights' Theatre through June 13, captures some of the craggy, elemental emotions you find in O'Neill. To describe it as a Jewish variation of "Desire Under the Elms" would not be inappropriate.
But if it is deeply felt, "Jesse's Land" is sometimes deeply tedious. There is nowhere a light touch, a grace note, a moment of truce in nearly three hours of warfare. Time and again, the characters stake out their emotions, explain their needs, lay down psychological ultimatums. While Joselovitz is not unaware of the irony in some of their stances, "Jesse's Land" suffers from a case of motivational overkill.
Jesse Kletchik, an obdurate immigrant from Poland, has fought tooth and nail to acquire his dairy farm, and as the play begins in 1940, the vast acreage and his brand new farmhouse represent more than mere prosperity. They constitute the repudiation of a past of misery and persecution in Europe, a kingdom of his own forging, the extension of his heart's blood and his body's sweat. When Sammi, his cowed son, brings home Willa Neuwald, a slightly conniving Jewish girl from New York, and then marries her, Jesse is willing to offer room in the house and a job in the fields. But no more.
Willa definitely wants more. For her, the farm is opportunity incarnate, a claim on the future, and an escape from the slums, "where the dirt's in six languages." Through means fair and foul, she tries to cajole the old man into giving her and Sammi a patch of the farmland and a house all their own. Jesse refuses. "Pa," says Willa, late in the evening, "you can't let go of what's yours and I can't take less for mine." The line virtually summarizes the play. Their collision may be the matter of strong drama, but it is also the stuff of endless repetition.
Willa gets pregnant and has a near miscarriage; Jesse hovers over her bed for four days and his strength pulls her out of danger. Willa discovers incriminating documents and briefly flirts with the idea of blackmailing Jesse into granting her demands. A flicker of forbidden love is struck between them. But nothing really changes the basic equation--certainly not Sammi, an ineffectual son who turns to putty whenever his father raises his voice; certainly not Romola, Jesse's tradition-bound wife. Essentially, Joselovitz is hammering away all evening at two non-negotiable positions.
One of NPT's better casts struggles valiantly under James Nicola's direction to inject warmth and variety into the script. Periodically, they succeed. Robert Sloane achieves some of Jesse's patriarchal grandeur ("I done it all what was the dream," he boasts), although Sloane's thick accent and the colloquial dialogue can make for an impenetrable mix. Cary Anne Spear redeems the manipulative daughter-in-law with quiet understanding for her moral failings. As the possessive wife, Barbara Rappaport melts now and again into a touching old woman, who wonders why the old ways don't work any more. And Alessandro Cima is a subtle blend of dutiful son and whipped cur.
But real estate is never far from their minds. Although Joselovitz wants to use that squabble as a focus for a whole tangle of family emotions, the fight often seems grasping and petty. A final coda, set 18 years later, succeeds in putting the drama in the perspective of time and allows Jesse a gesture of generosity that is also a moment of sweet revenge. But for the most part, generosity and grace cast faint shadows over the troubled hills of "Jesse's Land."
JESSE'S LAND. By Ernest Joselovitz. Directed by James Nicola; set, Russell Metheny; lighting, Richard Moore; costumes, Mary Ann Powell. With Alessandro Cima, Barbara Rappaport, Cary Anne Spear, Robert Sloane, Michael Heintzman. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through June 13.