When a lifelong tradition suddenly becomes too heavy to bear, will you find the strength to uphold it, or will you turn from it in the name of love?
This is the exact dilemma Tevye, the central character of “Fiddler on the Roof,” faces, and though his problems occur in the small Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, his plight is one that carries through the present, spanning not only time but race, religion, and all other facets that make us who we are.
The father of five daughters was raised in a life where parents acted as matchmakers for their children, but he’s confronted with his eldest three children seeking to marry outside of who has been chosen for them and betrothed instead to someone they truly love.
“He’s very perplexed by this,” said Walter Mitchell, who will play Tevye in Theatre at the Grove’s production of the show, which runs on the weekends from June 6 through June 22. “To him, this whole thing of love is a brand new experience.”
Tevye and his wife Golde, played by Cathy Alaimo, also had a prearranged marriage, and it’s 25 years into it that they finally ask the question of each other, “Do you love me?” “Fiddler” taps into human emotions on all levels.
“We get into a real tussle on stage, and it brings tears to her eyes,” Mitchell said of a scene where he is arguing with one of his daughters. “The emotion she feels, and I feel, when I say to her, ‘No, absolutely not – you cannot marry this man. I don’t want you to see this man again. No,’ I’m sure that many fathers and daughters can relate to that situation.”
An air of authenticity in the faith the show focuses on is brought to the production, thanks in part to cast members who have immersed themselves in the show previously and also Jeff Fremont, who plays the rabbi and who is the only cast member that is Jewish.
“We refer to him, we lean on him for authentic interpretation of certain things,” Mitchell said. “At one point, there’s an actual Jewish wedding being performed, and he’s constantly bringing forth elements to authenticate the process.”
Mitchell himself has had firsthand experience with the faith even though he’s Christian, thanks to his stint as Tevye over 15 years ago with Little Theatre. It was then that he employed the help of Martin Gershonowitz, a friend who has since passed, who took Mitchell to services on the Sabbath at his temple.
“Through the show, Tevye carries on a conversation with God, and you see how vitally important his relationship with God is,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to get firsthand knowledge and a sense of what it means to be a prayerful Jew. [In going to services,] I was able to assimilate a lot of feelings of when they pray, what the impact of that prayer life is like. I’ll be forever grateful to him for doing that for me.”
It also helps that director Mike Marone, who is doing choreography and design work as well, is part of the show for the fifth time, having been a cast member, set designer, and choreographer before.
“It’s the quintessential classic musical,” he said of why he enjoys the production so much. “Yes, it deals with something that occurred a hundred years ago, but its themes are something people today can take away from.”
The fiddler is actually representative of the major theme, a character who has no lines whatsoever in the show, yet the greatest impact. Grove’s fiddler is being played by violinist Hannah Ondish. The character is the first to appear and pops up when Tevye beckons, but it’s her last appearance that leaves the notes she plays hanging in the air for all to contemplate.
“All the people of Anatevka are asked to leave the town, and the fiddler parades out with them,” Marone said, “symbolizing this idea that, no matter where your home is and where you go, you take those traditions with you and make them a part of the community.”