Review: World premiere of ‘Red Winged Blackbird’ by Alyosha Zim (*****)


Eva (Daniele Levin) is radiant in the years before developing Huntington’s Disease, seated here with husband Sidney (Julian Lopez-Morillas). Photo Credit: Jay Yamada

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“Red Winged Blackbird” by Alyosha Zim is an extraordinary play with a remarkable back story. First off, the playwright is actually a distinguished psychiatrist by profession, and this is his first play which he is producing himself at the young age of 79, while still practicing medicine. It is a stage adaptation of an unpublished memoir which Zim completed in 1985. He decided then that it would work best as a play, and spent a decade on the revision. It seems impossible that such a project could ever have made it to the boards. And even more unlikely that this self-produced adventure would prove to be stage-worthy at all, even if it did make it into production. 

Well, as it turns out, it is a good deal more than stage worthy. It is an absolute gem. Zim had the great good sense to bring in Nancy Carlin as director, and her skillful guidance of a fine creative team has sent this blackbird into glorious flight. 

Eva (Danielle Levin) and Sidney (Julian Lopez-Morillas), holocaust survivors, have two sons. One (Alyosha, played by Aaron Wilton) is a successful psychiatrist, leading a conventional life but currently separated from his wife and children. The other, Joshua (Adam Magill) is a dropout who has spent years as a spiritual adventurer, travelling the hippie trail to India, becoming a disciple of Meher Baba, currently a not-very-successful student of a Buddhist Monk in the Crazy Wisdom tradition, and an unpublished writer. 

The family has had much to struggle with. Both Eva and Sidney are holocaust survivors who witnessed terrible events when they were very young. And Eva has been burdened with Huntington’s Disease, a tragedy which has deeply effected her chidlren, who have each responded differently. 

Through flashbacks after her death, the play reveals the impact of the disease. Eva was a vibrant young woman and a loving mother, but by the time her children reached adolescence the disease had impacted her mind with dementia and uncontrolled mood swings, and crippled her body. As Eva, Danielle Levin is remarkable. Her movements have been carefully choreographed by Bridgette Loriaux and the result is deeply communicative. Although we can scarecly understand what she says through her battered body, her limbs present a dance of agony and love. It is a deeply moving performance. 

As her husband, Sidney, Julian Lopez-Morillas is excellent in his portrayal of a man still deeply in love, carrying the burdens of a traumatic past, and anxious for the well-being of his sons. 

But the central relationship of the play is that of the two brothers. Alyosha, the psychiatrist, has dealt with Eva’s disease by becoming a medical expert and living in denial of the implications for himself and his children. Both Alyosha and his children would have a 50% chance of developing Huntington’s and (at the time of the play) there is no way to predict how their lives will turn out. Still, Alyosha has raised his family.

His younger brother, Joshua, a man of passionate artistic sensibilities and, possibly, afflicted with bipolar disorder has led a scattered and romantic life of wildly mountainous heights and valleys of depression. 

The basic situation of the play is that, after years of estrangement, Joshua has insisted that Alyosha come visit him and his partner Padma (Rinabeth Apostol) at their cabin adjacent to a Buddhist ashram in the California Rockies, but has not explained why. 

The interweaving of family memories, personal adventures, Jewish and Buddhist philosophy, and ethical challenges makes for a rich stew of emotional and intellectual theatricality. The explanation of why Joshua has brought his brother Alyosha to the Rockies leads to a stunning and memorable denoument. Along the way, Rinpoche (Ogie Zulueta), the Buddhist teacher of Crazy Wisdom, offers insightful commentary. 

Director Nancy Carlin has brought together an entire catalog of distinguished Bay area actors to make this play happen, and they are all outstanding. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out the six foot four Adam Magill whose work both literally and figuratively is, typically, head and shoulders above his peers. Magill is always a fine actor in every project he undertakes, but with “Red Winged Blackbird” the marriage of actor and part is an unusually happy one and Magill makes the most of it. 

The entire creative team is equally distinguished and set, costumes, lighting, sound and choreography are of the highest caliber. 

“Red Winged Blackbird’ is a very notable premiere, and you should go see it. You really should. 

“Red Winged Blackbird” plays at the LIve Oak Theater in Berkeley through March 20th. For further information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)


“Red Winged Blackbird,” a world premeire by Alyosha Zim. Director: Nancy Carlin. Set Design: Nina Ball. Costume Design: Valera Coble. LIghting Design: Kurt Landisman. Sound Design: Cliff Caruthers. Choreographer: Bridgette Loriaux. Cast: Padma: Rinabeth Ap;ostol. Eva: Danielle Levin. Sidney: Julian Lopez-Morillas. Joshua: Adam Magill. Alyosha: Aaron Wilton. Rinpoche: Ogie Zulueta. 

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