ARLINGTON – COVID has had many of us crying for our mothers and have also had many moms crying for their children and their grandchildren.
Fortunately, one mother is doing what she can to bring some normalcy by inspiring her son to bring live theater back to the Boston area.
Starting Sunday, June 13, best-selling author and Brookline resident Michael Levin will be presenting his one-act play, “The Mom Show,” at the Regent Theatre in Arlington.
Though many of us may have faced hard times during the past year, most will pale in comparison to what Levin’s mother went through during World War II, when she escaped Nazi Germany and eventually made it to the United States. The play is a tribute to Levin’s mother and immigrant mothers of all backgrounds. Levin did the writing and composing, and performs in the one-man show.
Jenny Graubart was born in Belgium in 1936. After escaping Europe, Graubart lived in Cuba and New York. During the course of her life, she dealt with divorce, death, alcoholism, and finally Alzheimer’s disease. Needless to say, Levin had a great deal of material from which to choose.
“The story touches on the Holocaust, my grandfather’s murder, my mom’s dementia, a family history of alcoholism, [and] my parents’ divorce,” Levin explains. “Fortunately, a lot of things that are funny and happy … balance the tough stuff.”
As he had lived through some of the chapters, Levin did not have to do all that much research. “Mom was very open with me about the struggles she went through and what her parents went through,” says Levin, noting that he also had ties to people who knew his grandparents who were able to add details. “It was only when I weaved all the stories together into the show that I was able to get perspective on the whole tapestry.”
Speaking for a moment about his maternal grandfather and his influence on the lives of Levin’s mother and himself, Levin says “At 13 he somehow made his way across Germany to Poland, where he eventually established himself as a clothier. In 1939, he knew the Nazis were different from anything the Jews had faced and got the family moving immediately, from Belgium to France to Spain to Cuba to New York, starting over so many times. He never lost his cheerfulness, love of family, or desire to provide safety. He was never too afraid to act. His courage is why I’m here today.”
After reading sections of the script while walking around Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Levin took to Zoom to rehearse it before trying it out in an actual theater with small (but live) audiences.
“It took a lot of time,” he recalls, “but I wouldn’t call it difficult. It was just testing which stories worked [and] how long to tell each one.”
As Levin is also a trained tenor who sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, his addition of and transition into music may not be a surprise, but it now anchors the entire story.
“At a rehearsal in January, the audience said, ‘Add songs,’” Levin recalls, noting that the music has helped him express ideas and feelings that were difficult to do in words, even for someone who has written and edited over 800 books.
“The first song asks how [to] tell the story of your Mom’s life when you only know fragments and pieces,” says Levin. “The facts are the facts, and the interpretations are my surmise.”
While the title strongly spotlights one maternal member of his family, Levin maintains that others are deeply involved. In addition to his grandfather, Levin speaks and sings about his father as well.
“There’s plenty about him and his side of the family,” Levin explains, noting that his father’s story is pretty amazing, too. “But it’s really Mom’s night, Mom’s message, Mom’s story.”
Another male member of the family in the play is Levin’s great-uncle, who saved hundreds of lives working with the French Resistance and survived four years in a concentration camp.
“He was a superhero,” Levin observes, noting that his great-uncle went on to become a top European diamond dealer who befriended the Kennedys, celebrities, and business magnates. “He was a huge influence on my life. I’d love to do a show about him!”
Though the performance features Levin alone and most of the story deals with one person, Levin suggests that the story is far more universal than may be expected.
“It’s really every family’s story,” he maintains, noting how many of the challenges that his family experienced also are faced by many others.
In addition to finding a sense of balance, Levin hopes audiences will come away with inspiration from his mother’s resilience and the enduring love of family that got them both through the “tough stuff.”
“I hope audiences will take away from the story the … optimism and perspective about life that the ‘Jewish Greatest Generation’ models for the rest of us,” he says. “No matter what happens, pull up your socks and keep going!”
“The Mom Show” runs Sundays from June 13 through July 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $24. For tickets, visit regenttheatre.com.