With its latest Black Box series offering, Jon Robin Baitz’ “The Substance of Fire,” Riverwalk Theatre has reunited two lions of the Lansing stage in director Bill Helder and lead actor Bob Gras.
Helder, whose research skills and adeptness at unearthing meaty scripts dripping with questions and searches for meaning are considerable, brings real life and raw emotion to the stage at least once every theater season as a director.
While Gras has been known mainly for directing compelling plays and designing quality sets over the years, we forget what a fine actor he continues to be. It’s been a long time since he last set foot on stage, and this performance makes up for all the roles he turned down in favor of directing.
The play’s focus is on aging publisher Isaac Geldhart (Gras), whose personal history of surviving the Holocaust drives his work. When he is confronted by his three adult children and prodded by a bottom-line driven son to publish a trashy romance novel, he resists, and his shareholding children take over the company.
There are layers of trauma imbedded in the dialogue of this play and questions about how a Holocaust survivor could turn out as despotic as the regime that persecuted him —why does this father characterize his children in such cruel ways?
Also at the core of this play is the notion that if we gradually give up our autonomy in old age, we may also reluctantly give up our purpose in life.
The once-powerful Geldhart, who comes across as vicious toward his offspring in Act 1, descends reluctantly into emotional vulnerability in Act 2, revealing a time when he loved his children and was less obsessed with the loss of personal history that will come with his death.
Gras fully becomes Geldhart in Act 2, his own physical limitations adding texture to the part, and his ability to fly into emotional rages despite those limitations all the more amazing.
Of the other roles in this play, Ian Griffin fares best as eldest son Martin, who comes across as the most emotional and understanding of his father’s struggles. As youngest son, Aaron, Joe Dickson is a one-note businessman who delivers his lines without much believability. Melissa Kaplan, as daughter Sarah, is almost completely overshadowed by the intensity of the other three characters with which she shares the stage.
Tanya Burnham shows up in Act 2 as a social worker employed to assess Isaac’s ability to care for himself, and she is mostly overshadowed by Gras’ bravura performance. Ultimately, this is a one-man show, an opportunity to study an old master display his immense acting talents.
In an era of theater when musicals about body functions draw large and curious audiences who are dazzled by group harmonies and multi-colored, mismatched costumes, a little play about the impact of the Holocaust on just one person can get missed and dismissed as yet another play about “that.” Riverwalk’s “The Substance of Fire” should not be missed. It can certainly not be dismissed.
‘The Substance of Fire’
Through March 22 8
p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday Riverwalk Theatre Black Box
Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St., Lansing $12 (517) 482-5700 www.riverwalktheatre.com