In a relatively brief 90 or so minutes, Atlanta playwright Karen Wurl’s “Dispossessed” covers a lot of territory.
Set in 1928, it’s partly a backstage comedy about a “hardly first-rate” Yiddish theater troupe on the Lower East Side of New York, in the midst of rehearsing its production of the canonical Jewish play “The Dybbuk,” involving the exorcism of a young bride-to-be (in a prearranged marriage) who’s possessed by the spirit of her dead true love.
Life begins to imitate art for Rivka, the “forward-thinking” actress who’s playing the role, and whose parents direct, produce, co-star in and otherwise run the company.
She soon finds herself in a similar situation, when her marital hand is taken from her and given away, basically part of a business deal between Rivka’s “old-country” father and a brash “new-world” upstart who worms his way into the family. Moreover, with a similar supernatural twist, Rivka is visited (if not possessed) by her own apparition: literally Leah, her character from “The Dybbuk.”
In artistic director Peter Hardy’s economical Essential Theatre staging of “Dispossessed” — one of two premieres by Atlanta writers in the company’s annual New Play Festival (rotating with Derek Dixon’s “When Things Are Lost” through Aug. 28 at the West End Performing Arts Center) — Alyssa Caputo makes a suitably spectral entrance as Leah.
But the role ultimately devolves into a glorified gimmick, an unnecessary distraction from some of the more interesting or realistic matters in the play. (Even then, it isn’t entirely clear whether or not Leah is supposed to be invisible to everyone except Rivka, because whenever anybody else walks into the room, Leah ducks for cover or runs off to hide.)
There’s a loving dynamic between Rivka and Tsilah, her younger and presumably prettier cousin, complicated by issues of inner and outer beauty — not only as actresses competing for better roles within the company, but also as women vying for the romantic affections of the same man. Another intriguing aspect is the eventual conflict Rivka feels about crossing over from the Yiddish theater community to the bright lights of mainstream Broadway.
The ingenue Tsilah is very nicely played by Christie Vozniak. And the seasoned Kathleen McManus truly domineers as the matriarch of the family, skillfully crafting a quintessential Jewish mother without ever becoming simply the stereotype of one. In her finest scene, she recalls her own sweet courtship with Rivka’s father and some painful moments from her ancestral past.
Also in the cast: Scott Rousseau as Rivka’s father (“and, more importantly, her director,” to borrow one of the play’s funniest lines); Jake Krakovsky as the cad (er, eligible bachelor); and Chris Schulz as Rivka’s earnest and well-intentioned other suitor.
However compacted or overstuffed Wurl’s script — and however limited Hardy’s production values — “Dispossessed” is most effective as a showcase for Amelia Fischer (a newcomer to me), who delivers a splendid, multilayered performance in the lead role. In another case of life imitating art, just as you might wish Rivka well on Broadway, so might you hope for the best for Fischer right here at home.
Through Aug. 28 (in rotating repertory with “When Things Are Lost”). 8 p.m. Aug. 6, 11-12, 16, 20, 23 and 26; 2 p.m. Aug. 7, 21 and 28; 7 p.m. Aug. 14. $10-$25. West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., Atlanta. www.essentialtheatre.com.
Bottom line: Co-stars Amelia Fischer and Kathleen McManus shine.