The Last Act of Lilka Kadison

Mindy Sterling and Usman Ally star in the West Coast Premiere of "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison," directed by Dan Bonnell and now playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. (Photo by Michael Lamont / April 4, 2014)

“Everyone dies with secrets, why can’t I?” Convalescing at home after a fall, Lilith Fischer, age 87, is snappish with her son on the phone, rude to her in-home aide and determined to keep the memories of her youth buried.

A ghost from her past, however, has other ideas.

Imaginative in the telling and deeply felt, “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison,” a West Coast premiere presented by the Falcon Theatre in association with Chicago’s Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company, is a quiet celebration of the life-affirming power of creativity and human connection.

At age 17, Lilith, nee Lilka Kadison (Mindy Sterling), escaped from the Nazi invasion of Poland that took her entire family. Now, 70 years later, after marriage and a secure life in California, widowed Lilith finds her long-denied past demanding to be acknowledged, a past made manifest in her living room by the haunting presence of her first love, Ben Ari Adler (Nicholas Cutro) and her own young self (Brittany Uomoleale).

Determined to ignore Ben Ari’s direct appeals for recognition, Lilith rails against the reality of her life: a broken hip, her Pakistan-born caretaker Menelik (Usman Ally), her out-of-state son’s absence and her approaching mortality. But she can’t help but see and hear the replay of her past — conceived and executed with outstanding finesse — that begins when handsome Ben Ari meets Lilka in 1939 Warsaw and charms her with his toy theater presentation of a Jewish folk tale about a wise fool and feathers in the wind.

While Ben Ari periodically breaks away to see if elderly Lilith will respond, secret poet and scholar Lilka is drawn by his playful wit. (Uomoleale’s unforced notes of sweet-faced vulnerability and eager intelligence speak to the maturity of her performance — she is a talent to watch.) Lilka helps Ben Ari write his next puppet play, a retelling of the biblical story of Solomon and Sheba, and the two fall in love. What happens then in the chaos of the occupation jolts Lilith out of her passive denial — and toward the play’s moving conclusion.

The accumulation of a lifetime (papers, books, vinyl records, knickknacks, objets d’art, dried flowers and cardboard boxes) that clutters Lilith’s living room floor and her tall, wall-length shelves, becomes the stuff of transformative stage magic thanks to set designer Melissa Ficociello, toy theater designer Susan Simpson. Cutro, with seemingly effortless dexterity, shifts a section of shelving to reveal the versatile toy theater and throughout the play, he slides panels, turns a crank, lifts flaps, flips boxes and clears shelves so that visual surprises pop up and changes of scenes occur as if the stage itself is a toy theater.

Directed by Dan Bonnell with keen awareness of its resonant themes of love and loss, this play-within-a-play is rooted in a series of Jewish stories produced by the late documentarian Johanna Cooper and Abbie Phillips for radio, and co-written by Phillips, Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Heidi Stillman and Andy White.

And “stories” is the operative term: There is more than one narrative of pain and soulful restoration here. Played with affecting constraint by Ally, the veteran actor of note who originated the role, Menelik is nothing more to Lilith at first than an unwelcome reminder of her frailty. Their personal truths surface over a recording of “Schelomo,” Ernest Bloch’s achingly beautiful Hebrew rhapsody for cello and orchestra, and the dynamic shifts.

The cast is uniformly fine. Cutro matches his physical dexterity with a well-calibrated mix of sensitivity and brash appeal. Sterling may be most widely familiar as outrageous Frau Farbissina in “Austin Powers,” and she gives Lilith’s acerbity a comic edge, but Sterling’s chops aren’t confined to comedy and Lilith’s surrender to the past that shaped her is heart-wrenching. (The sound of choked back tears was audible at the performance reviewed, despite the unpardonable and horribly mistimed cartoon ring of a cellphone in the audience.)

Solid production values include Cricket Myers’s sound design (encompassing a crackly recording of a Hitler radio rant), Ann Closs-Farley’s understated era- and culture-jumping costumes and Chris Wojcieszyn’s ambient lights. A separate round of applause goes to the stand-out — and so essential — creative efforts of Ficociello and Simpson.

What: “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison”

Where:Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. No performances April 23-24. Ends April 27.

Tickets: $32.50 to $42.

More info: (818) 955-8004, falcontheatre.com

Editor's Note: This post was updated to include information about extended performance dates.

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.