, Salem, MA


November 29, 2012

Fresh for the holidays

North Shore Players try something different with 'Prairie Lights'

From “The Nutcracker” to “A Christmas Carol,” there’s a long list of stories that we associate with the holidays.

While these dramas help us celebrate tradition, over time, they can start to seem old.

“We all know ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ we all know ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’” said Jennifer Webster, an assistant producer for the North Shore Players, the community theater in Danvers. “We were looking for something new and fresh to try.”

The group’s search led to “Prairie Lights,” a musical about two Jewish orphans, a brother and sister, who are relocated from New York to Nebraska in 1905.

The show, written by Chicago playwright Susan Lieberman in 2003, is based on the “orphan trains” that carried groups of abandoned children to new homes in the West at the turn of the 20th century.

“Some of the kids were not orphans, they were products of families that could not afford to take care of them,” Webster said. “A lot of children’s parents died from plagues, and nobody else could take care of them.”

In the play, the orphans are adopted by a childless, older couple — Abe and Sophie Birnbaum — who are the only Jews in their community. While the children fulfill the Birnbaums’ desire to have a family, they are also a source of conflict, because they have different attitudes about practicing their religion.

“Their dad was a rabbi; they’re devout Jews,” Webster said. “Everyone in their community was Jewish, and they’re used to being ingrained in this lifestyle.”

The Birnbaums, by contrast, feel obliged to keep their religion to themselves.

“They’ve kept their religion quiet,” Webster said. “Abe couldn’t get a loan from the bank, when they found out he wouldn’t be working on the Sabbath.”

Through this family’s struggles with religious identity, the play sends a message about tolerance and recognition.

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