Sunday, October 30, 2022

"Uncle Philip's Coat" at Six Points Theater

The day before Halloween at my chosen place of worship, the sermon was about ghosts. And that maybe ghosts aren't the spooky thing we think about this time of the year, but the spirit of our ancestors that we carry with us by remembering them. A few hours later this theme came up again in Six Points Theater's production of Uncle Philip's Coat. In this engrossing and engaging solo play, #TCTheater veteran J.C. Cutler portrays the playwright Matty Selman as well as his ancestors in a story of family and identity and the ghosts that are carried in an old ragged coat, full of stories and history.

In about 70 minutes or so, J.C. Cutler as Matty tells us the story of his family through a coat that he inherited from his Uncle Philip. An eccentric "black sheep of the family," Philip immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child, and never had a "real job." He was a flim-flam man, or a "Luftmensch," someone with their head in the clouds, selling odds and ends on the Coney Island boardwalk. Matty is trying to figure out what to do with the coat; he tries giving it away but no one wants it, even the Ellis Island historical society. He goes to see his father Mickey, Philip's brother, and from there begins the story of the two brothers escaping the pogroms with their mother, and their father's coat from a well-known clothier in Kiev. First from Mickey's perspective (who's worked hard at the Diamond Exchange all his adult life and has no patience for his always hungry and needy brother), then from the perspective of Philip himself. Eventually Matty comes to realize that, as an actor, he identifies with his uncle and his unconventional lifestyle, and comes to a greater understanding of himself through this journey of the coat.

J.C. Cuter and the coat (photo by Sarah Whiting)
J.C. embodies these three characters and more in a tour de force performance, directed by Craig Johnson. He's honest and vulnerable as the searching Matty, stern as the hard-nosed Mickey, and charming as the rambling Philip, speaking in a sort of stream of conscious way about this and that and the other thing, getting himself back on track with a "but that's not the point." It's a fully lived in performance, speaking in various accents and languages (including Yiddish), and completely convincing. This is a great solo storytelling piece, and J.C. is a captivating master storyteller. As an audience member you can just relax and enjoy the journey, knowing you're in good hands with J.C. at the helm.

The coat represents the family history, the family stories, and Philip leaves it to Matty so that he'll keep those stories alive. Costume and property designer Eleanor Schanilec has done a great job with the physical manifestation of this very important coat. I learned in a talk-back (more on that in a bit) that she acquired several coats from a second-hand store, and J.C. chose the one he liked, which happened to be the heaviest one. They added fur trim and distressed it into a beautifully shabby thing that looks like it's lived a few lifetimes. J.C. wears it, uses it as a prop, and pulls a multitude of treasures from its many pockets.

The story is told, appropriately, from an empty theater stage, complete with ghost light. There's a boardwalk to represent Coney Island where some of the stories take place, a park bench, and a table, with a background consisting of a brick wall and a couple of curtains (scenic design by Robin McIntyre).

I was lucky enough to attend the show when they had a post-show discussion with the playwright and composer for the original production - on Zoom (how very 2022). Despite the technical difficulties it was fascinating to hear from the real Matty, who said that everything in the play comes from his family history, except for a story about a tea cup that holds all the ancestors (borrowed from a friend's story). And he didn't really inherit the coat, he only inherited its wearer, his beloved Uncle Philip, whom as a child he thought of as "the king of Coney Island." He said "every family has an Uncle Philip," or an aunt or cousin, the one who doesn't quite fit in but has the best stories. Which is perhaps why this play is so relatable; we all carry the spirits of our ancestors with us in one way or another.

Uncle Philip's Coat is a great story of old New York, and a fascinating story about the immigrant experience, particularly the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience. The stories of Ellis Island are heart-wrenching (if you've never been, you must visit Ellis Island the next time you're in NYC, it's the history of America). It's a beautiful play that's funny and poignant, beautifully brought to life by J.C. Cutler and the creative team. See it at Six Points Theater, located in the Highland Park Community Center, through November 13.