Sholem Aleichem's charming, conversational tales of an all-but-lost way of small-town Jewish life are eminently worthy of telling and retelling. Veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff has taken it upon himself to convey them to us, but in his one-man performance at the Washington Jewish Theater, he seems to feel compelled to wring them into life.
The Russian-born writer Solomon Rabinowitz (1859-1916) took the pen name "Sholem Aleichem," a Hebrew greeting that means "peace be with you." His simple, direct tales, each harboring a strong moral about Jewish faith and character and embroidered with homey, human detail, were set in the tiny mythical town of Kasrilevke, which was to Aleichem what Yoknapatawpha County was to William Faulkner.
For his two-hour evening, Persoff has selected five of these fables: "The Heirs: The Mayers and the Shayners," in which a family can't tell the difference between its identical twin sons; "A Robbery of Sorts," which occurs in the synagogue of a town too poor to know crime; "Tevya's Good Fortune," featuring the hero of "Fiddler on the Roof"; "My Son -- The Lottery Ticket," about a father's pride and hope in his bright son; and "Prescription: Air, Preferably Fresh!," the familiar saga of a family that takes a summer home only to be deluged with relatives.
Persoff edited and adapted the yarns and has been performing them for more than 17 years. But the breath of spontaneity essential to successful storytelling seems to have escaped during that time. Except in his relatively delicate introduction to the town and its inhabitants, Persoff oversells the stories, missing Aleichem's wry, understated tone and ignoring the author's own "stage direction" to the reader ("for the wise, a hint is sufficient"). Persoff overembellishes the narratives with gusty bluster, robust gestures and unlikely voice changes -- his screeching characterizations of women and old men are particularly grating.
Aleichem's tales of a lost time are timeless, and one suspects they really don't need a dramatization to work their magic. But if you do happen to find yourself in Persoff's company, there is some comfort to be taken from a line that arrives early in the evening: "No matter how long you let a person talk, eventually he will have to stop."
Nehemiah Persoff's Sholem Aleichem, stories by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Dorothy H. Rochmis, edited and adapted by Nehemiah Persoff. Directed by William S. Bartman Jr; lighting, David B. Sislen. At the Washington Jewish Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, Rockville, through Sept. 20.