In "Dreams in the Golden Country," a thoroughly engaging 65-minute play for children being presented through Sunday at the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab, a scared immigrant girl comes with her family to New York's Lower East Side in 1903 and negotiates that roiling melting pot with the adaptability of the young.
Playwright Barbara Field stirs humor, melodrama, full-blooded characterizations and generous dollops of social history into this jampacked little piece about Russian Jews struggling to make their way in the Land of Opportunity. Director Gregg Henry keeps it moving apace while allowing the characters to breathe, all within a spare but evocative set that encourages kids to imagine.
Watching an immigrant family at the turn of the 20th century argue over whether to assimilate or cling to tradition isn't trendy stuff, but as brought to life by Henry's six polished and fully committed actors, the show visibly delighted both kids and parents at a recent performance.
Field adapted the play from a book by Kathryn Lasky, "Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl." This is the second in a six-play series jointly commissioned by the Kennedy Center's education department and Scholastic Entertainment. All are based on Scholastic's "Dear America" books about fictional girls in various periods of U.S. history. (The first play, "A Light in the Storm," premiered last fall and is on a national tour.)
The plays begins and ends as a flashback, told by Zipporah Feldman (Rana Kay), a well-known stage actress. Just back from a European tour in 1934, she gives reporters her ominous view of the Nazis and recalls how her family fled Russian pogroms in 1903. The story segues to Ellis Island, where 12-year-old Zippy (also played by Kay), Mama (Laura Giannarelli) and older sister Tovah (Lee Mikeska Gardner) are reunited with Papa (Terence Aselford), who has worked two years to send for them.
Mama is petrified by this chaotic new world and refuses at first to leave the family's tenement. Papa has already trimmed his traditional forelocks and beard, to her displeasure. Tovah gets a job in a garment factory and, shocked at conditions there, becomes a union organizer. Zippy learns English fast and jumps several grades in a year. Tovah falls for an Irish fireman, Sean O'Malley (Michael Laurino). Zippy goes to the theater and discovers her life's work.
Field occasionally resorts to broad-brush ethnic stereotyping -- noisy, combative Irish neighbors, the Jewish boy intent on becoming a millionaire. Yet she provides context: The boy needs money because his father is ill. The neighbors argue over old Catholic-Protestant issues.
There are speeches that will strike adults as Capra-corny. O'Malley tells Tovah that bigotry is "an old-fashioned idea, imported from the Old World." But the play also makes complex ideas -- religious intermarriage and labor strife -- understandable. It even includes a scene inspired by the Triangle Waist Co. fire, in which characters react to the offstage sight of factory girls jumping to their deaths. (The play is recommended for children 9 and older.)
Set designer Tony Cisek frames the action with a metallic grid that, with the help of Dan Covey's precise lighting, neatly evokes a fire escape or a cavernous hall at Ellis Island. Add bits of furniture and you're in a cramped tenement. Catherine Norgren's costumes recall photos from the period in detail; composer Seth Kibel's klezmerish interludes add ethnic flavor but don't overwhelm young ears.
One of the pleasures of "Dreams in the Golden Country" is its secondary theme -- how a child falls in love with the theater. Kay's Zippy rhapsodizes about the thrill of it, even as Kay and her cohorts create a lost world and invite the audience to experience it with them.
Thus are future theatergoers born.
Dreams in the Golden Country, by Barbara Field. Adapted from the book by Kathryn Lasky. Directed by Gregg Henry. Approximately 65 minutes. Friday through Sunday in the Kennedy Center Theater Lab. Call 202-467-4600.