Therefore Choose Life is Jake Epstein’s first big venture as a playwright whom of which he co-wrote with his mother Kathy Kacer, a Canadian author whose writings focus on The Holocaust. With about six years in the making, the play tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who is faced with a heartbreaking dilemma after building a life in Canada for twenty-five years with a wife and child. The family comprising of Joseph (Avery Saltzman) and Evelyn (Sheila McCarthy), raise their son Sam (Jake Epstein) on the teachings of the three tenets of life: health, freedom and family. The show is loosely based on true events with Joseph receiving a letter in the mail with word that his first wife and love of his life is alive and on her way to Canada to be with him.
Saltzman steals the show with his portrayal of inner conflict as his wedding anniversary is approaching. He lives with the memories of living in the ghetto and falling in love with his Chava (Lisa Horner), only to have her taken away in the camps. The letter changes everything. His performance makes you truly feel for the predicament he is in, while he is surrounded by loved ones who don’t understand what he is going through. Epstein does a good job at making you feel frustrated at his character who comes across as naive and too full of energy. I kept thinking: you don’t understand what its like kid! You don’t understand! *shakes fists in air* The pair have great chemistry on-stage leading up to a very well acted out pivotal scene where Sam confronts Joseph about what his decision should be. If you could sum up what the play is about in one take, that scene does the trick. Through all of this, its easy to feel sorry for McCarthy’s Evelyn as the kind mother and doting wife that is unaware of what her husband is going through until closer to the end. The play gives you a good insight on what the struggle is like from each characters aspects including Chava’s, who we mainly get to see reciting the said letter and in Joseph’s memories. Overall Epstein does great work teaming up with his mother and will hopefully hone his craft for future endeavors.
Kacer’s inspiration for the title is inspired by a passage from the bible where Moses says to the Israelites before entering the promise land: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cure. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live”. She explains “..it is a beautiful sentiment and title for the play in which each character embarks on a personal journey to discover what it means to choose life”.
Here is Epstein’s thoughts on co-writing a play with his mother and what’s in store for the future.
How did you come to write Therefore Choose Life with your mother?
Six years ago I came home to Toronto after touring the US for a year in Spring Awakening. Since I didn’t have an apartment, my folks were kind enough to let me move back home. My mom, an incredible writer of historical fiction about the Holocaust (amongst other things), approached me with a story she thought would make a great play. Since theatre school I had been writing one act plays and one-man shows, and she was aware that I was interested in creating something. We spent the next two months writing the first draft of Therefore Choose Life.
What kind of lessons did you away from working with your mother, a well-known writer?
There are at least 18 major lessons that I can mention! Of those, my most cherished were watching my mom stand up and fight for the things in the script she believed in. We were constantly asked to change things in the script, and for the most part the suggestions were spot on. But it was inspiring to see my mom stand her ground on the things that were too important for her to change.
My other beautiful lesson was in simplifying a complex thought. My mom has a gift for taking incredibly complicated ideas and communicating them with simple words. It’s one of the reasons she’s been so successful at writing Holocaust stories for young readers. I love to over-think things and it probably bleeds into some of my writing! It was invaluable to work with someone who has an innate ability to keep the thoughts complex, but the words simple.
Would you ever try to tackle writing another play, but on your own?
Absolutely. Writing is a huge passion of mine. My dream would be to keep writing plays.
What were the challenges you faced writing and starring in the same play?
When you write a script you have such a clear idea of what each character sounds like and the tone of each scene. As soon as you cast a play, and people bring their own energy and experience to their parts, things change. One of the challenges I faced doing ‘double-duty’ was letting go of my own idea about how a scene should go, and letting it happen organically in the rehearsal room. It took me a second to let go of my own expectations. What an incredible lesson!
You’ve acted on-screen, on-stage and have co-written a play. Are there any other roles you’d like to tackle in a production?
Right now, acting and writing seems enough! But I’m open to trying new things and seeing how my passions change as I get older.
Why did you decide to take on a role that you wrote?
When I first wrote the play I never intended on acting in it myself. I think as the piece became more and more a reality, and we started putting together such a strong team (onstage and off), it become more and more clear that this was something I had to do. I was aware that I could play the part and thought I could bring something very personal to the play.
If you didn’t star in it, who else would you have liked to?
There’s a fantastic Toronto actor named Aris Athanasopoulos who I think would have been great in the part. If I was unable to do this, I think he’d be the one carrying the torch. Maybe in our next production.
What would like the audience to take away from the play?
The play is about a choice. And the choice that Joseph, our main character, has to make in the play is an extremely painful and difficult one. I hope people are moved and uneasy with his choice. I hope it invokes discussion amongst our audience. And I hope it reminds people that no matter what stage of life you are in, it’s never too late to change and do what makes you happy- as painful as that can be.
Therefore Choose Life runs April 18- May 10 at The Greenwin Theatre.
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