New York City Theater
"Walking in Memphis: the Life of a Southern Jew"
Abingdon Theatre, Manhattan
Southern Jews and their ways of life have lately become a popular subject for drama. Playwright Alfred Uhry started it all in the 1980s with his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy”—and then “Last Night of Ballyhoo.” Mark Harelik’s “The Immigrant”---the poignant story of his grandfather’s peddler life in Texas—-followed hard upon Uhry’s recollections.
And now a young actor continues this genre—-namely, Jonathan Ross, in his one-man show—“Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew.” Ross, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, is an engaging young man who sits on the stage, plays a few piano bars, and chats up the audience. A tall, lanky lad, with shaved head and appealing smile, he exudes youth and warmth. That he adores his southern family, and suffers through their tragedies, there is no doubt. Material with dramatic potential exists, as in any family. The mother dies, too early, of cancer. The sister is severely mentally retarded, as a result of a childhood illness, but is loved and cherished by her family. And this close family extends to the grandparents, all of whom appear to be traditional observant Jews. But Ross is no Uhry or even a Harelik, as playwrights go. The material, at best, is thin and flat, even though it is drawn on Ross’s real-life experiences.
Ross’s strength lies in his ability to mimic the various dialects. Although we are in no position to evaluate the Memphis speech patterns, as offered up by rednecks, black nannies, and Jewish papas, they sound authentic and intriguing. In fact, it is at such moments that his characters come alive, as, for example, when he turns into Elizabeth, the black woman who gave him love and church-going experiences. And the portrait of his father comes through clearly, even though his words are unintelligible to our ears (“my father doesn’t use consonants when he talks”).
But, primarily, “Walking in Memphis” is more like a conversation in some one’s living room---unedited, rattling on, sometimes touching, sometimes mildly amusing. If “Walking in Memphis” is to become a legitimate solo piece, joining that admirable art form, much work needs to be done. “Memphis” should be sharpened, heightened, and severely edited. Meanwhile, Ross, a promising young performer, should continue to pursue his acting career.
-- Irene Backalenick
December 3, 2005