Invisible Theatre presents this James Sherman play on a semi-abstract set; we're clearly in somebody's home, but the details are left blank, for this family tale stretches across 63 years and through a number of living rooms in and around Chicago. The three characters change far less than the locales. The matriarch, Bessie, has established herself as a working-class American housewife after fleeing European pogroms (she's offended that the pretty songs and dances of Fiddler on the Roof misrepresent the horrible experiences of her own family). Bessie reins in her smart and ambitious daughter, Mary, who dreams of being an artist but wakes up to the reality of 1950s housewifery. Mary's daughter, Deborah, has the best chance of leading an independent life, but she must contend with the pressure of her mother and grandmother's differing senses of guilt and responsibility.
Bessie, who decades later still has nightmares about the horrors of life "on the other side" (of the Atlantic), knows that the world is a dangerous place, and keeps Mary in line with long, horrible stories about the fatal consequences of, for instance, losing a button from your sweater. After all, something very bad along these lines happened to the neighbor of an acquaintance whose name she can barely remember.
Mary, in contrast, knows that the world is a dull place. She is resigned to her situation, but pressures Deborah not to follow in her trudging footsteps, even though she can't help simultaneously passing along some of her own mother's conservative attitudes.
"From door to door" is one character's misunderstanding of the phrase "l'dor v'dor," which means "from generation to generation." This is, indeed, a generation-gap play, stretching as it does from 1936 to 1999, but it's also a play about maintaining family unity across the gaping decades. Much of it is funny, even if you can easily predict the course of the humor; some of it is quite touching, even if it does become as sticky-sweet as halva.
At the center of this production is Maedell Dixon as the put-upon Mary: practical, firm in her opinions, yet with a quiet intellectual curiosity that's understandable when you see what she was like as a child. And this you do see; early in the play, Dixon slides easily from poised older woman to bright, active girl and back again.
Jetti Ames plays matriarch Bessie with a delicate balance of lightness and gravity. Years ago, I briefly thought that Ames tended to play too many roles the same way, but I soon realized the truth: Ames lets all the clichés and mannerisms fall away, revealing the essentials of the character beneath. So she does here, playing Bessie as much more than the standard kvetching Jewish mother.
As young Deborah, Laura Kopec can be a little stiff at times, but she really comes to life in her arguments with Dixon's Mary. In this play, at least, Kopec needs confrontation to bring out her best.
Susan Claassen and Gail Fitzhugh direct the proceedings with economy, although they could have been more strict about the accents. On opening night, when Dixon and Kopec played their scenes as young girls, the focus was more on "child" than on "Chicago Jew."
That's not a debilitating lapse, because while much of From Door to Door is specific to the American Jewish experience, its best elements can resonate with all mothers and daughters.