Sam Jay Gold begins “All Vows” — which he is presenting at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, through May 8 — with a memory of sitting in his grandfather’s lap, on a boat. “He had this laugh: His belly would rise and fall as if the laughter was trapped inside his chest, fighting for a way out,” Gold says.
It’s a vivid memory. It’s also, Gold quicky tells us, totally made up.
His actual memories of his grandfather, who died when he was 4, are much sketchier. And it’s his lack of memories, really — and the loss that that represents — that are at the heart of this intensely personal show.
The man he knew as Poppy — Ralph Peter Gold, a surgeon — was born in Russia in the 1910s and moved to China with his family as an infant. He later studied medicine in Italy, and moved back to China because of the persecution he encountered there as a Jew, in the years leading up to World War II. He then came to the United States after the war ended. He first wife died young, of breast cancer, and he remarried. He lived into his 70s before dying in 1993.
It must have been a rich, fascinating life. Yet from his grandson’s point of view, it’s almost all a mystery.
“All Vows” is built around the little that Sam knows about him. He shows a clip from an old home movie in which Poppy briefly talked about himself. He interviews his father (on tape), who really doesn’t have a lot to add.
“Was he funny?” Sam asks.
“He had a sense of humor,” his father replies. “I don’t think he was nearly as funny as me.”
“All Vows” includes some music and some dance, and a lot of puppetry. Sam resurrects the spirit of his grandfather, in a way, with five puppets meant to represent him at different points of his life. He manipulates them onstage along with two silent assistants (Ali Goss and Liz Oakley).
A lot of this show — created by Gold in partnership with Goss, Oakley and video designer Chris Carcione, and partially developed in residence at the Morris Museum — has the feeling of a solemnly enacted ritual. Yet there is also room for some offbeat humor — for instance, in a segment in which Gold reads from Amazon.com reviews of yarzheit (memorial) candles.
And everything culminates in the show’s most moving scene, in which Gold, after an hour of making us aware of how acutely he feels the pain of not having had more direct contact with his grandfather, provides a message for his own grandchildren (should he ever have them), talking about his life and what he wants them to know about him. He says he hopes they call him Poppy.
Gold’s intent is clear. This really isn’t a play. It’s an act of healing.
Remaining presentations of “All Vows” will take place May 7 at 8 p.m. and May 8 at 2 p.m. at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. Visit morrismuseum.org.
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