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The Clown Mensch of White Plains (Part One)

Clown-Mensch-in-Training Club Med, April 1993

Clown-Mensch-in-Training
Club Med, April 1993

It’s time to write about The Play Group Theatre. PGT is a youth drama program in White Plains, NY. But it’s much, much more than that. PGT is a place – a safe place – where young people can spend portions of their teenage lives being challenged, being accepted, being respected, and being loved. It is a place – a much-needed place – where kids can safely do the hard work of growing into young adulthood. That PGT happens to produce shows is and is not a coincidence, because it’s run by Jill and Steven Abusch who love the theater. But they love kids even more. We consider Jill and Steven our sons’ second set of parents (which makes Jeff Downing, who directs many of PGT’s shows and much, much more, their favorite uncle). Aviva and Ilana may be Jill’s and Steven’s children by birth, but the hundreds of other young people who are lucky enough to find their way to whatever building PGT happens to occupy at the time, they too benefit from the love and wisdom these remarkably talented and caring people have to offer.

Here’s the rundown on Jonah Maccabee’s years at PGT.

Jonah had already done a bit of theater prior to Play Group. Back in the spring of 2002, he made his 6th grade theatrical debut as a gumshoe in Ardsley Middle School’s production of Teens in Tinseltown. In the spring of 2003, he appeared in Ardsley Middle School’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But in the summer of 2003, he got his big break, playing Danny Zuko in Grease at Eisner Camp. In Jonah’s own words (from an eighth grade English assignment), his favorite memory from Grease:

The play went perfectly until the final scene. Danny was trying to convince Sandy to talk to him. He was just finishing his line as Sandy was supposed to walk onto the stage. But she didn’t. I had said, “You know, you guys mean a lot to me, but Sandy does too. And I’m gonna do whatever I can to get her back.” That’s when Sandy was supposed to walk on. Thinking quickly, I spat out, “I kinda wish she were here right now.” The audience started laughing. That was when Sandy came on and finished the play. That was close.

None of these early performances were among Jonah’s best. No one was knocking on his door asking him to audition (not even PGT), but he must have enjoyed the shows a lot, because when the chance came along to give PGT a try, Jonah didn’t hesitate.

PGT's “Lucky Stiff” May 2004

PGT’s “Lucky Stiff”
May 2004

In the spring of 2004, Jonah (who was 14 and in the 8th grade) somehow arrived at PGT (the facts are shrouded in mystery but Ellen and I are pretty sure that Yoni Bronstein had something to do with it). JoJo’s first PGT show was a comic murder-mystery entitled Lucky Stiff. He played a number of small roles in the musical, my favorite being the emcee of a night club in Monte Carlo where he welcomed the evening’s guests by suavely crooning (or attempting to) with a French accent. Once again, it wasn’t an especially peak moment in Jonah’s theater history, but that boy was awfully cute! And the experience must have been sufficiently satisfying to him, because he showed up again at PGT the following fall (of 2004) and got himself cast in a strange little musical called The Hadleyburg Project. I remember sitting in the balcony of the Irvington Town Theater wondering, “What is this?” And, “Well, I guess this is what dads do for their kids.” But despite my ignorant attitude of what PGT was all about, Jonah got it, and he never missed a rehearsal and he immediately asked to sign up for the 2nd half of the year.

PGT's “The Laramie Project” May 2005

PGT’s “The Laramie Project”
May 2005

This time (spring of 2005), Jonah found himself in what would be, believe it or not, a surprisingly recurring role as a violent homophobe, this first time in a production of The Laramie Project. I attended because, after all, this was my boy and I needed to support him. I hadn’t counted on being moved to tears by the show. I hadn’t counted on being blown away by Jonah’s and his fellow actors’ performances. But here’s the thing with PGT. The Laramie Project wasn’t so much about putting on a good show, even though they most certainly did. Throughout the rehearsal process, their directors reminded them again and again that theater exists to teach us about our own lives. Watching Jonah onstage, I had difficulty drawing the line between him and his character, and so I cried for everything I loved about him and everything I didn’t. That’s pretty good theater. PGT was definitely beginning to endear itself to me.

In the fall of 2005, Jonah found himself cast simultaneously in two PGT shows (this wouldn’t be the last time this would happen), Cinderella and A Man of No Importance. The part in Cinderella was a small one; they needed a bigger kid to help move the larger set-pieces and Jonah had become PGT’s “guy who’d never say no.” This, by the way, was the first of two shows in which Jonah would share the stage with his kid brother. In that department, the best was truly yet to come.

PGT's “A Man of No Importance” December 2005

PGT’s “A Man of No Importance”
December 2005

In A Man of No Importance, Jonah reprised his Laramie role as a hate-filled homophobe. PGT has never shied away from difficult theater, and this one gave them another opportunity to grow some more teenage souls, Jonah’s included. But then, two weeks before Man of No Importance opened, Jonah dropped out. Or tried to. He’d been feeling the stress of school, of the show (“Maybe,” Jill says, “he just didn’t want to be the bad guy anymore.”), and he’d felt the solution was to walk away. But, Jill asked, would he come by the theater just one more time to talk about it? He did. And then, Jill and Jeff worked their magic. She claims the magic came from the theater itself, but I know these guys now. Jonah could only have walked away from that conversation feeling honored, accepted, respected and loved. And he felt strengthened. Jill writes, “It was the magic of remembering he was part, an important part, of something he cared about, with people he cared about. He was part of making art, and that meant something to him.” For a 15-year-old kid trying to make his way through the turbulent high school years, PGT was too much the right place for him to be. He returned to rehearsals, performed the show, and from that point on, never looked back. PGT was, and always would be, home.

PGT's “Alice in Wonderland” April 2006

PGT’s “Alice in Wonderland”
April 2006

In the spring of 2006, Jonah appeared in Alice in Wonderland. Talk about type-casting! They made him the Cheshire Cat. You know, the one with the smile. PGT had fallen in love with Jonah’s smile (didn’t we all?) and decided it was in their best interest to put it onstage. Somehow, Jonah also coaxed them into letting him be “the ukulele-playing Cheshire Cat.” Well, I don’t remember that from the original show, but I sure remember it from this production. He’d gotten the ukulele a year earlier on our biggest-family-trip-ever to Hawaii. Jonah had saved up his money, and decided he’d be spending it on an authentic ukulele from Maui. We found the store. We found the instrument. And he found a new voice for himself. Watching him with his ukulele during Alice … well, no wonder he was smiling!

One more important memory from Alice in Wonderland. Not mine, but Rachel Berger’s, who was in six PGT shows with Jonah. She told me about having invited friends of her family to a performance of Alice, and how, after the show, “the youngest was star-struck as all the actors made their way into the lobby.” As this little boy dreamed of meeting what surely appeared to him to be a cast of world-famous professionals greeting their throngs of adoring fans, Rachel’s mom asked Jonah if he would give the seven-year old an autograph. Jonah went right up and spoke with him and made that little boy’s day. Rachel writes, “Jonah was just always so kind and warm, even to people he had never met before.”

PGT's “The Secret Garden” January 2007

PGT’s “The Secret Garden”
January 2007

Then came The Secret Garden. And something magical happened. In this fall of 2007 production, Jonah played the gardener Ben, a wise old man who steadied the show’s lead on her journey to find the center in her life. He spoke with an accent. Jonah loved learning accents. He loved doing impressions of Sean Connery. Kept me rolling on the floor with laughter. When Woodlands celebrated “St. Paddy’s Purim,” he tried to teach me an Irish accent, but I only made it as far as Pakistan. More fuel for Jonah’s humor. But this character, Ben, tugged at something deep inside me. It showed, I think, Jonah’s future. While I was watching him counsel his young charge, I thought, “This is what grown-up Jonah could really be like. I may actually see this guy ten or fifteen years from now.” Of course, that wasn’t to be. But I maybe got a glimpse of the adult version of this kooky kid who I knew had a heart of gold but that it would take time before that heart would come front and center. Little did I know, of course, that this was a side of Jonah Maccabee that many, many of his friends were already coming to treasure. “Ben the gardener” had apparently been residing inside of Jonah all along. Like Jonah’s smile, PGT figured out how to bring this part of Jonah center stage.

PGT's “Marvin’s Room” May 2007

PGT’s “Marvin’s Room”
May 2007

The spring of 2007 was the season of Jonah’s other double-header: Marvin’s Room and Once on this Island. Marvin’s Room injected a surprising new challenge into Jonah’s repertoire: comedy. Unbelievably, PGT’s reigning clown offstage had never played one onstage. And comedy’s a whole lot harder than it looks, even for the clown-meister himself. Jonah’s character, Dr. Wally, had the unfortunate responsibility of shepherding one of the play’s female leads through her struggle with leukemia. And getting laughs, without lampooning the horror of disease and recovery, constituted a gigantic test of Jonah Maccabee’s theatrical constitution. Speaking as his dad, I’m not able to offer an unbiased assessment of Jonah’s performance. And I don’t care. I loved watching him. Couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Was stunned by the depth of Dr. Wally’s character. And was blown out of the water by the work Jonah did up there to bring Dr. Wally to life.

PGT's “Once on this Island” May 2007

PGT’s “Once on this Island”
May 2007

Once on this Island was a very different kind of PGT experience for Jonah. His role was a very small one, appearing only in one scene toward the end of the show. An older boy who could sing was needed for the part but, between the three shows that season, no one could be spared. Since Jonah was PGT’s “guy who’d never say no,” he was invited to sign on while also preparing for Marvin’s Room. Okay, so he probably loved being able to say he was in two PGT shows at the same time. No one enjoyed a good brag as much as my kid. (Did I just brag about that? Does that mean he got it from me?) Jill Abusch writes, “It turned out to be even more important than I thought to have Jonah join my cast, because he ended up completely running backstage for me. The cast had a ton of younger kids and twelve moving platforms – he ended up being in charge of coordinating all the backstage choreography, making sure the platforms were where they needed to be, often rolling them on and off stage himself, and keeping the little kids out of harm’s way as the scenery was moved all around. He stepped into that role as beautifully as he stepped into his onstage role – I grew to rely on him completely to make sure the show ran smoothly and safely.” Jonah received two coveted honors as part of his service to Once on this Island: a clipboard he proudly carried as he kept everyone and everything moving backstage, and an additional credit in the program as the Assistant Stage Manager. Oh, how he loved that!

PGT's “Grand Hotel” December 2007

PGT’s “Grand Hotel”
December 2007

The fall 2007 show was Grand Hotel. Jonah played Doctor Otternschlag. Another doctor, but this was no Dr. Wally. An aging, cynical veteran of the 1st World War, Jonah’s character carried painful shrapnel wounds which now found him addicted to morphine. I think this was probably the first time I cried for Jonah, when I had to watch him inject the opiate into his leg. But much as his character tried to give up on life (at one point, commenting on another guest at the hotel who suffered from a life-threatening illness, saying, “Look at him. He’s dying and he wants to live. I’m living and can’t wait to die.”), the Doctor always showed up for “one more day.” This character was a huge one, and Jonah worked hard to pour himself into his role. During one rehearsal, Jeff Downing and Jill Abusch watched mesmerized as Jonah, whose character used a cane to get around, was seated in a chair and the cane accidentally fell to the floor. As Jonah started to reach for the cane, Jill and Jeff were suddenly treated to what they both consider one of the most fascinating and inspired acting moments in all their years at PGT, as Jonah worked out exactly how his character, with his infirmities and his pain and his personality, would have retrieved that cane. Jonah was so passionate about his work at PGT. He’d never do homework for school, but he was always, in those moments that life happens, more than willing to do whatever was necessary (acting, helping with set production, hurricane relief, friendship) to get the job done.

Jonah and Aiden together! PGT's "Hair" June 2008

Jonah and Aiden together!
PGT’s “Hair” (June 2008)

And then came Hair, Jonah’s final show of his PGT years. The “senior show,” Hair’s cast consisted of 14 twelfth-graders and 2 younger actors. What made this production so meaningful for us Dreskins is that not only was it the culminating achievement of Jonah’s four years with PGT, but one of those two younger actors just happened to be Aiden. The result of the devious, loving machinations of director Jill Abusch, Jonah’s younger brother had been cast as Jonah’s character’s younger brother. Don’t bother looking for him in any script. Jill wanted these two real-life brothers on stage together, and she figured out a way to make that happen. In doing so, she gave us all a precious, fleeting gift (perhaps most precious of all, to Aiden himself) – the thrill of seeing Jonah and Aiden share the stage, share their personalities and their charm, and share their love … for acting, and for each other. Hair was an awful lot of fun. But as is the usual case at PGT, the fun is what pulled actor and audience alike into a serious and important consideration of what it means to be alive. This turned out to be far more than some philosophical exercise, and demanded an urgent and immediate answer because one of those Hair hippies, nine months into the future, would no longer be living. He needed his answer now.

Oh, and Hair was when the argument was finally laid to rest as to whether or not there was a third Dreskin sibling. I remember PGT’ers excitedly gathering around Katie in the lobby of the Emelin Theater, exclaiming, “There really is another Dreskin!”

PGT Summer Camp August 2008

PGT Summer Camp
August 2008

The summer of 2008, before leaving for college, Jonah spent three weeks working at PGT’s summer camp. He served as Assistant Director for The Monsters We Create, a one-act mash-up of songs and other dramatic material that provided high school and middle school actors with the opportunity to reflect on the nightmares we create in the real world. While Jonah was not solely responsible for this production, he took his work very seriously and, I think, was excited to use what he’d learned in his years with PGT in order to help a new generation of actors, a new generation of young people, endeavoring to find their way. I came across some of Jonah’s notes to his young charges, and while the handwriting was unmistakable, the “voices” sounded a lot like Jeff Downing and Jill Abusch. Another smile on this dad’s face, seeing his kid, not quite grown up but most definitely on his way, trying out what “grown up” might actually mean. Steven Abusch reflected a bit on Jonah’s farewell poem to his kids that summer, and seeing that Jonah alluded to coming back to PGT the next summer, wondered, “How could it be possible that I feel my loss is even greater from that one sentence? Your boy. Well, they do say in all good comedy, ‘Leave ‘em wanting more.’ He got that down. That’s for sure.”

As Jonah’s time with PGT came to its rightful conclusion, he penned a note to Jill, saying, “Thank you for all the good times, all the stressful times, and all the birthdays (because school stopped the whole ‘bring cupcakes’ thing around 5th grade). I remember during Man of No Importance tech week, when I sat with you and Jeff, and talked about how stressed I was. Despite all the work you had to get done, you helped me pull through it and made sure I was okay. Thank you again for that, and for convincing me that acting is not more work, but a release from everything life throws at me. I promise that when I am world-famous, PGT won’t just be ‘community theater’ in my interviews. Sincerely, and with a pick-you-up-and-twirl-you-around hug, Jonah.”

Can anyone think of a better way to say goodbye to Jonah than with a pick-you-up-and-twirl-you-around hug? I think not.

Billy

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