“Packrat Gene” Unfolds Our Need to Cling to Clutter—Ross Valley Players
Margy Kahn Touches Three Generations of Jewish History
by Patricia L. Morin
Playwright Margy Kahn entices us to ask what price we place for collecting treasures from the past. What would we keep and what would we give or throw away, especially when we are forced to leave our home?
Even worse, what horrible secrets are neatly tucked away in sealed boxes?
Elder Esther (dynamic Marsha van Broek) is losing her memory of place and time—and her patience. She is also losing her longtime garden apartment to a new, in-coming condo corporation. Her anxious, pleading daughter Leigh (admirable Maya Rath) has taken time off to help Esther decide what to keep, working against Esther’s wishes.
Caring granddaughter Rachel (vibrant Helen Kim, understudy for Julie Ann Sarabia) arrives, even though Esther forgets she called her. We soon become aware that Rachel came to be with her new Orthodox Jewish boyfriend.
We are immediately attracted to Esther’s warm and inviting home: The couch piled with boxes, a filled bookcase, and a paper-littered kitchen table in front of stuffed shelves. The comfy scene invites us to join them. I want to sit on the pinkish couch and rip open the boxes to explore what’s inside.
Because she is being forced to move, Esther bubbles up in fits of anger, grabbing collectibles out of Leigh’s hands. These mementos are her past, some representing her survival as a French woman in the Holocaust. Esther’s Judaism is lost on Leigh, who switched her name from the Hebrew Leah. However, Rachel feels empathy for her grandmother and argues on her behalf to Leigh.
Esther’s memories are tied to her possessions, especially her family menorah, which stands high atop her bookcase. The menorah symbolizes the tragic Jewish past for all three women. Esther first gives it to them, but recants, as she accuses them of stealing it.
How would we cope with a sudden trauma relived through a found letter that retells a horror?
As Esther, Van Broek moves seamlessly through fury, angst, warmth, and kindness, with impressive quick changes of mood. Her French accent deepens Esther’s European past. Director Michael R. Cohen heightens the power of the play through fast-paced dialogue and choreography. Cohen switches scenes to outdoors, as Leigh and Rachel sneak cigarettes to avoid Esther’s wrath. They share a tender moment, puffing away, concerned for Esther.
The scene changes are greatly enhanced by the passionate songs of beloved French singer Edith Piaf. Esther’s passion for her treasures equals the power of Piaf’s voice.
“The Packrat Gene” parallels many of our lives: we keep a sense of our past through old nick-knacks, saved postcards, beloved letters, and a tourist backscratcher. Then there are the bittersweet photos, trinkets, and mementos of religious ceremonies, maybe even a menorah that recalls the horrors of war.
How would we bridge the past and present, feelings and memories? Can Esther survive, once again?
I recommend you join Esther, Leigh, and Rachel in Esther’s snug garden apartment. Imagine what dreams and memories your possessions hold in sealed boxes.
“The Packrat Gene” is truly a lovely memory play that charms and enlightens. A must see.
“The Packrat Gene” by Margy Kahn, directed by Michael R. Cohen, at Ross Valley Players, Ross, California. Info: RossValleyPlayers.com – to April 3, 2022.
Cast: Marsha Van Broek, Helen Kim, and Maya Rath.
Banner photo: Marsha van Broek (Esther). Photos by Robin Jackson