BWW Review: World Premiere ONE HOUSE OVER Tells An Immigrant Story Full of Humor & Heart at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

BWW Review: World Premiere ONE HOUSE OVER Tells An Immigrant Story Full of Humor & Heart at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater
"Is prying such a bad thing? Shouldn't we be curious about other people's lives? Their hopes and fears and whether or not they like cinnamon crumble coffee cake? That's not prying, that's getting to know someone!"

The family whose lives are about to be pried open in playwright Catherine Trieschmann's World Premiere One House Over is that of divorced violin teacher, Joanne, and her aging, ailing father, Milos. He is obstinate to the point of driving his daughter mad. To ease the burden, Joanne (the very convincing Elaine Rivkin) jumps at the chance to hire Camila Hernandez as live-in help, providing constant care for the cantankerous old coot.

An 89-year-old Czechoslovakian who fled the Nazis during World War Two, Milos (the outstanding Mark Jacoby) is set firmly in his ways, opinions, and prejudices. At the onset, he's not keen on the Mexican Camila (the fiery Zoë Sophia Garcia), tossing his lunch of black beans on the ground and shouting at the bilingual caregiver, "This is America! Speak English!"

But as often happens in stories like this one, it's only a matter of time before the old man's icy exterior starts to melt. These two characters in particular, each an immigrant from a different time and circumstance, open up about their journey to America - the Czech with his "golden ticket" to a job soldering metal in a basement for fifteen cents an hour, the young señora with her ride in the back of a frozen food truck packed with 40 other hopeful souls.

Moments like these are beautifully written by Trieschmann. One House Over smartly addresses timely issues with quiet honesty, revealing American immigrants' struggles, hopes, and fears through heartfelt dialogue. There's nothing heavy-handed here - just a couple of people getting to know one another. Jacoby and Garcia play off each other brilliantly, breathing easy life into Trieschmann's very believable characters.

The character of Joanne is equally convincing, as is Camila's also-undocumented husband, Rafael (Justin Huen). Joanne has all the hallmarks of a progressively-minded, Chicago-area, Obama-loving, occasional-pot-smoking, middle class white woman - and yet it's surprising where the journey of One House Over takes her. Joanne's evolution is rather sobering in its realism. Her life has been a privileged one, and for all her good intentions, one wonders if she will ever truly see past the end of her nose.

On the flip side, a smaller but deeply effective part, played by the remarkable Jeanne Paulsen, is that of Patty, Joanne's stereotypically nosy neighbor. Patty initially appears deeply ignorant, rude, self-serving, and not unlikely to attempt to oust the undocumented Hernandez family. Paulsen plays the part of the witchy neighbor with such glorious disdain, it's fun and illuminating to watch the way in which her character evolves.

That's the true beauty in One House Over - the natural way events unfold through a dozen backyard conversations. Though it took a few scenes for this slow and steady play to get its groove, the sense of care and concern for these characters and their complicated lives inevitably sneaks up on you.

Plus, the play more than balances the tough and sweetly poignant moments with ample amusement and laughter. Laugh-out-loud funny? The audience on opening night would say so. For me, reactions to the plentiful humor were much less boisterous, though no less felt.

Humor is of course subjective, as is one's reaction to the conclusion of One House Over. Trieschmann has committed to honesty and the fact that while some people are capable of change, others simply aren't. It's not hopeless - it's just complicated. It's reality. And it's a conversation-starter. Conversations about fences, boundaries, openness of character, the value of love, health, and freedom, judging a book by its cover, and how anyone could possibly turn down cinnamon crumble coffee cake.

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From This Author Kelsey Lawler

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