V-E Day is tribute to bygone era

The Sun Press – 12/11/03
Les Roberts, Guest Correspondent

Beachwood playwright Faye Sholiton’s comedy-drama V-E Day, now having its world premiere at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, is a valentine this Christmas season – romantic, sentimental, and a little bit sad.

Old fashioned in that it is well-crafted and deals with characters an audience can easily relate to, the play is a history lesson for those born too late to remember the home front during World War II and a melancholy nostalgia for those who were there.

Evelyn Bergfeld is a 79-year-old widow whose chronic depression teeters on dementia, unintentionally bullied by a daughter who cares too much and regretting a lifetime of days not seized.

One day Bernard Cohen, a lover she hasn’t seen for nearly 60 years, rings the doorbell. He brings with him a box of letters the two exchanged during the 1940s, along with a dollop of hope for the widow. Evelyn feels her aging heart coming alive again as other actors recreate the bittersweet memories of her youth.

The work of Mitchell Fields as the 83-year-old Bernie towers over this production, simply because he doesn’t do anything – he just is. Fields, who has been known to chew up the scenery in flashier roles, quietly inhabits his character here with a wise, touching, and compelling truth, in one of the best performances of the season.

He is matched by his younger version, Michael John Sestili, who morphs believably from the naïve boy next door going off to war, brimming with optimism and courage, to the veteran returning with a shattered body and the vinegar taste of broken dreams.

Luminous Jennifer Clifford, as the young Evie, is mesmerizing and sure-footed as she walks the tightrope between early feminism and the 1940s security of the picket fence. It’s no wonder Bernie fell in love with her, despite the now-laughable mid-century hairstyles.

Rhoda Rosen, who plays the senior Evelyn, conveys the strength and determination the character showed as a young woman, as well as a wicked sense of mischief as she orders things she doesn’t need from the Home Shopping Network. But she doesn’t quite capture the depression and resignation that comes from a long lifetime of disappointments.

Some of the evening’s lighter moments – and there are more of them than are apparent in this production – fall to Juliette Regnier as Evelyn’s daughter Aimee. She handles most of those moments with her usual adroitness. It’s hard not to like this long-suffering daughter-turned-caretaker, but it’s hard not to hate her a little bit, too.

Sixth-grader Jennifer Salkin handles her smaller role as the child Aimee with poise and sincerity.

Holly Humes bravely dons a 1940s bathing suit in one of the play’s most memorable scenes and contributes solid support as Evie’s best friend and Bernie’s sister.

Designer Mark Kobak’s Cleveland Heights home setting is perfection – so deliciously middle-class, one can almost detect the scent of Wonder Bread in the air. It reminded me a little bit of my mother’s apartment. …

The play’s the thing that triumphs in the end. Faye Sholiton’s craftsmanship and humanity is a throwback to the great American playwrights who plied their trade around the time of the real V-E Day – and she does their legacy proud.

Roberts is a Cleveland Heights novelist.