Movie Review - It takes a village - Welcome to Anatevka

Welcome to Anatevka chronicles jewish center's special Fiddler

Tradition is the central song and central theme of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, but the production captured in Welcome to Anatevka is far from traditional.

The documentary's Fiddler features 22 adult actors with developmental disabilities, 13 high school students and eight theater professionals. Filmmakers Ruth Leitman and James Jernigan go behind the scenes for the 10 weeks of auditions, rehearsals and preparations that brought this Fiddler to light in the fall of 1999. Welcome to Anatevka, named for the village that gives Fiddler its setting, puts a new perspective on both the craft of the theater and the lives of the disabled.

Since 1992, the Habima Theater of the Atlanta Jewish Community Center has staged plays with disabled adults. Our guides through the process with Fiddler are director Sherri Sutton and music director Bryan Mercer, with other familiar faces from Atlanta theater being Lorna Howley and Al Stilo, who plays Tevye.

One of the charms of the 60-minute film is the way the disabled actors reveal the same concerns as any other aspiring thespians, fussing over being upstaged and dealing with stage fright: I'm on the verge of hurling!" one says before curtain. There's even a backstage romantic triangle between several of them.

Anatevka explores the intersection of high school students and disabled adults as two distinct groups. The disabled are given clear instructions about what's appropriate — to keep their hands to themselves, for instance. Meanwhile, a theater professional insists the students not use the word "retarded" with each other or to take advantage of the unconditional love the disabled can offer (and then, in an unlucky choice of words, compares their devotion to children or dogs). It would be interesting had the film gotten more feedback from the students about the experience after the fact, but Anatevka understandably focuses on the disabled.

Many of the disabled players we see in vivid snapshots, as opposed to sustained portraits, like senior citizens Nelson and Charles, roommates with touching loyalty for each other. We follow a fellow called Oberdorfer on walks and listen as he scolds reckless drivers and makes comments like, "I try to be original, but it's hard."

Leitman directed the acclaimed documentaries Wildwood, N.J. and Alma, and with Jernigan (The Band) takes an approach in which the extent of a person's disabilities aren't revealed unless they become part of the narrative. At one point we find Sarah, Fiddler's Golde and one of its most vivacious talents, unresponsive and staring into space, and only afterward do we learn that she's just had an epileptic seizure. "Acting is in my blood," Sarah says early on, but she reveals a tendency to cry when criticized.

An even bigger handful is Joanna as Chava, who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder called Prader-Willy. Joanna has trouble grasping why she can't always be the center of attention, badgering Sutton with questions and easily losing her temper. In an unexpectedly amusing moment, Joanna is sent into a classroom to cool off, and she sits under a blackboard on which is written "REDRUM."

But Joanna's also a poignant figure, and in a voice-over she describes the difficulties of having Prader-Willy, while we see her playing with a Nintendo Game Boy. At another point, she repeats, "I getting married," seeming to believe that she, not her character, will be wed by the play's end. If Sarah and Joanna are "difficult actors," it's more due to their disabilities than their egos.

The prospect that Joanna and Sarah's disabilities may keep them from being in the show gives Welcome to Anatevka suspense that most making-of-the-play depictions don't have. There's even a brief scare before show time when Sarah can't find her epilepsy medicine.

Most films and accounts of working with the disabled invariably focus on the uplifting, rewarding qualities, and Anatevka doesn't overlook them. But the film doesn't shy away from the exasperation that Sutton and Mercer face — at one point Mercer says in an aside to the camera, "Looks like I picked the wrong year to quit crystal meth."

Cast as Fiddler's sinister constable, Sammy, the leader of the AJCC developmentally disabled group, is initially treated as something of an antagonist, the directors wondering about his time commitments. We're surprised to learn that Sammy, despite having a fiance and a job, is disabled himself, having Tourrette's syndrome, and thus a tendency to blurt words and flip people the finger (although he seems under control in Anatevka). He confides to the camera that sex and sleep are the only tic-free times of his life.

I once worked at a newspaper where an editor forbid writers from using the line "They're all winners" in any story about the Special Olympics. Welcome to Anatevka fortunately avoids platitudes and cliches about the disabled, acknowledging that they have tempers and anxieties just like anyone else. The cast of Fiddler on the Roof might not all be stars, but Anatevka shows that they're ready for their close-ups.