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HTG’s ‘The Contest’ digs deeper than its script

Before the much-needed holiday break, a few spectacular plays were put on, providing students with the strength to endure the last couple of weeks. Among them was Hillel Theater Group’s “The Contest,” directed by Emily Galloway ’18, performed Nov. 12-15.

Centered around the life of an average, working class Jewish-American family, “The Contest” reveals how familial bonds can break and a home can be shattered in the relentless pursuit of materialistic dreams. Bev, the young daughter played by Emma Cyr ’19, hopes to one day go to music school and become a musician, yet her optimistic and sweet nature is taken advantage of as she is forced to play the middle ground as her parents constantly quarrel due to her mother’s reckless spending. Lily (Abby Kirshbaum ’16) lures her daughter into participating in a contest for Mounds candy—buying hundreds of candy bars in the process—under the delusion that she will likely win the grand prize. However, when the results come in, Lily lies about her and Bev’s success, deceiving the entire family, and ultimately causing a heart attack that spells the end of her husband, Joe, played by Alex Peters ’18. After this climactic reveal, in the second act, the story enters a downward spiral of despair when Bev leaves for school, and Lily is consumed by her obsession with contests.

Highly reminiscent of one the most famous modern plays to date, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” this play provokes the audience to consider the true nature of the American dream, as they watch Lily throw away her husband’s hard-earned money on various contests, which she believes will one day bring her family great wealth and pride. Kirshbaum delivered an outstanding performance, portraying Lily as a dynamic character yet one who remains committed to betting on slim chances with a high pay-off, the “easy-fix,” as her means to reaching the American dream. Boisterous, proud and boastful, Kirshbaum tackled her role and brought life to the character.

However, it was the dynamic among all three of the main characters that truly made “The Contest” stand out among the vast collection of Brandeis theater. Joe, quiet and reasonable, though with a fierce temper, was a complete foil to Lily, whose impulsive and sociable nature dominated the stage. Bev, who was torn between her two parents, had to endure the brunt of the pain and ultimately assumed responsibility after her father died. Even the set of the play forced the attention to the characters; a couch to the left of the stage, a dining table to the right and a piano, which Bev often played, in the center, uniting the two halves of the stage.

“The Contest” encompasses more issues than just the idea of the American dream, but also brings up madness, pride, anti-Semitism, domestic abuse and gender roles, which is exactly what director Galloway intended to coax out of the script and convey to the audience. In one scene, after Joe’s death, Bev and Lily get into a heated argument about the fate of their financial situation since their only source of income, Joe, was gone, and Lily refused to accept money from their wealthy relatives. Bev begs her mother to get a job, but Lily refuses, stating “It’s a shame for women to work.” This idea of a woman’s role, although common in that era, is vehemently railed against today, and leads us to think of how much our society has progressed.

Although “The Contest” was initially considered just a coming-of-age story about Bev, the play has become far more. It inspires one to contemplate all of the themes it harbors and to view the American culture of the ’40s in a new light. Even until the end, as Lily settles into her next contest, alone and disheveled, the audience is kept wondering about the cause and extent of her insanity. With a talented cast and crew, the Hillel Theater Group and the Undergraduate Theater Collective undoubtedly created an incredible production.

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