Adventures with Tevye

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a legendary character. He has many noble qualities: he works hard, he’s loyal to his family and his community, and he has a deep respect for knowledge and scholarship. When faced with a series of crises in his life, he reacts with wisdom and courage. He’s a good man. I like him; he’s a little crazy, but I like him.

I’m playing Tevye the Dairyman in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof with the St. Clair Theatre Guild. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play at least since high school, and probably earlier, because I know I’ve been listening to the music since I was seven or eight. The music is wonderful, haunting and beautiful, and it’s a joy to get to sing the songs even in rehearsal.

I saw an interview with Harvey Fierstein (whose birthday is today), who played Tevye on Broadway a few years ago. I’ve heard Tevye described as an “everyman,” an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. Fierstein disagreed with this, arguing that if Tevye were merely an ordinary man, he wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to react and change as his traditions were challenged by his daughters and by the world around him. I agree. And it makes theatrical sense as well, because we don’t go to the theatre to watch ordinary people do ordinary things, but rather to experience the lives of amazing individuals in larger-than-life situations.

Tevye is a devout man, but his relationship with God isn’t rigid, but instead is rather playful and informal. He believes that God is able to control things, but Tevye isn’t afraid to talk back to this all-powerful being. He believes in the power of tradition to hold his family and his village together, but is also flexible enough to see when a tradition no longer serves its purpose and needs to change.

But even Tevye’s open-mindedness has its limits. There is a line in the sand that even he can’t cross. And the moments where he struggles with these decisions are among the most challenging I’ve played as an actor. The emotions that I’m feeling as I react to my three oldest “daughters” are as raw and real as anything I’ve experienced on stage. (It helps, of course, that all three of them: Ellie Wentzel, Ciara Adams and Tyler Nevison, are wonderful actors in their own right.)

It’s easy to see stage musicals as something light and silly. Fiddler has always been much more than that, and I think its universal, lasting appeal to performers and audiences is the result of this realistic emotional depth. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know Tevye well. Like most memorable characters, I imagine he’ll be sticking around with me far after our final performance on Saturday night.

The St. Clair Theatre Guild presents Fiddler on the Roof this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14, 2014, at East China Performing Arts Center, 1585 Meisner Road in East China Township. More information is available on the Guild’s website.