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How ‘Indecent,’ about art happening against all odds, speaks to our time

The cast of “Indecent,” at Arena Stage through Dec. 20. (C. Stanley Photography)

“Indecent” is Paula Vogel’s eloquent account of art happening against all odds. By the time the portrait is complete, you can expect to have been stirred deeply by the moving facet of human aspiration it celebrates, to speak the truth in a time and place allergic to it.

It’s not a festive evening, mind you, in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater. Director Eric Rosen has assembled a hauntingly absorbing incarnation of Vogel’s Tony-nominated play, which had a too-short run on Broadway last year. “Indecent” may be too austere for a healthy commercial run these days, but it is still well suited to a home such as Arena, where a ready-made audience exists for a serious story exploring the consequences of illuminating love in all its permutations.

That story is of the actual court-ordered silencing of a play in New York in 1923 that depicted a lesbian kiss, the first time the act had been contemplated on a Broadway stage. That it occurred in a Yiddish play, “The God of Vengeance,” by a Polish Jewish immigrant, Sholem Asch, adds further elements of nativist suspicion, of distaste for “the other,” to the saga. In Vogel’s telling, the puritanical opposition to the play sours a passionate adherent — its stage manager, Lemml, played with apt operatic vivacity by Ben Cherry — on a nation purported to embrace newcomers with new ideas. His disaffection spurs a decision that leads to profound tragedy.

The involved elements of “Indecent” — its traversing continents and languages and years with the Yiddish theater troupe that adopts “The God of Vengeance” as its signature play — place extra pressure on a director, design team and cast to sustain the clarity as well as the mournful lyricism of the play. The play within a play is an early-20th-century melodrama about the Jewish owner of a brothel whose daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes. To add more complexity, members of the 10-person cast play multiple roles, and sometimes more than one in the same scene.

With the help of set designer Jack Magaw and projection designer Jeffrey Cady, many of the challenges are met, although it is still sometimes difficult to keep track of who exactly is whom in the changing cast of the play within a play; actors are called on at various times to speak in Yiddish or English or even German. (Surtitles are provided.) It falls to some highly skilled performers to keep us up to speed, and no one accomplishes this with more felicity than Emily Shackleford. She portrays Asch’s wife, as well as the multiple actresses, American and European, assaying the young woman in “The God of Vengeance” who is seduced by a prostitute.

Shackleford is well matched opposite Susan Lynskey, who portrays, among others, the actresses playing the prostitute. They both carry off the tricky task of differentiating each of their characters by some easy-to-recognize defining affects and gestures. Max Wolkowitz is a fresh and vibrant presence as Asch and others, and Susan Rome and Victor Raider-Wexler bring welcome heft to a variety of mature characters. Three roving musicians (Maryn Shaw, Alexander Sovronsky and John Milosich) playing Sovronsky’s poignant compositions are woven dexterously into the proceedings.

The travails of Lemml and the Yiddish troupe, as they seek to preserve the integrity of Asch’s play and resist efforts to denature it, give an audience as concrete a sense of why words matter as any drama being heard these days on American stages. As Cherry’s Lemml notes with sorrow and indignation, “The God of Vengeance” made its way to Moscow and Warsaw and Berlin without incident; only in the United States do authorities shut it down. It’s one of the many sobering revelations that make “Indecent” so terribly right for right now.

Indecent, by Paula Vogel. Directed by Eric Rosen. Choreography, Erika Chong Shuch; music direction and original music, Alexander Sovronsky; sets, Jack Magaw; costumes, Linda Roethke; lighting, Josh Epstein; sound, Andre Pluess; projections, Jeffrey Cady; voice and dialect, Zach Campion; stage manager, Kurt Hall. With Ethan Watermeier. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. $66-$82. Through Dec. 30 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.