Berkeley psychiatrist’s first play follows family living under the shadow of Huntington’s disease

‘Red Winged Blackbird,’ on view at Live Oak Theater, is Alyosha Zim’s heartfelt story about brotherly love, generational strife, religion and life-and-death choices.

Aaron Wilton (left) is Sheldon — later Alyosha — an unhappy, married psychotherapist, guilt-ridden about his treatment of his sick mother. His companion Padma (Rinabeth Apostol, center) offers him unswerving support while, his brother Harold — later Joshua — (Adam Magill) gets the fatherly approval he craves. Jay Yamada

Few hereditary disorders are more frightening than Huntington’s disease. With no cure, it causes the progressive degeneration of the brain’s nerve cells, impacts a person’s functional abilities and prompts movement, cognitive and psychiatric disorders. Each child of a Huntington’s patient has a 50% chance of inheriting the terminal disease, leaving them with a sword of Damocles hanging over their head as they await the fate that could announce itself at any time.

Red Winged Blackbird, Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., through March 20

First-time playwright and longtime Berkeley psychiatrist Alyosha Zim has personalized Huntington’s effect on families in the honest, heartfelt and well-acted Red Winged Blackbird, playing this week at the newly renovated theater in Live Oak Park.

By focusing on one family, Zim’s writing weaves the illness into a larger story about brotherly love, generational strife, Judaism and Buddhism, and life-and-death choices. And though it’s not a happy tale, Zim manages to bring life, love and some humor into the family saga. Effective, tight direction by Nancy Carlin keeps our attention riveted during the one-act, one-and-a-half-hour production.

The play is set in the 1960s and the 1980s, before the development of a gene test for Huntington’s. Parent Eva (the wonderful Danielle Levin) has Huntington’s, and her long-suffering husband Sidney (premier actor Julian Lopez-Morilles) works hard in a deli. Both parents are Jewish immigrants whose families were murdered in the Holocaust. In a moving scene, Sidney recounts the tragic deaths of his five brothers and their families.

Levin excels in the problematic role of Eva; in a few brief scenes, she is a young, happy, innocent woman singing to her sons. But in most of her role, she is compelling as the tormented, contorted, suffering patient. She is able to convey her emotional torment and her physical difficulty authentically.  

We meet their elder son Sheldon (the outstanding Aaron Wilton), first as a medical student, later as an unhappy, married psychotherapist, guilt-ridden about his own treatment of his sick mother. But from what the audience observes, absent one bout of anger, he is more than dutiful; he is remarkably mature and caring. Sheldon later renames himself “Alyosha” after the saintly sibling in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Immigrant parents’ sacrifices and expectations of their American children play a significant role in Red Winged Blackbird. Despite Alyosha’s need for his father’s approval, Sidney favors his younger son, Harold (the fine Adam Magill). Harold (who later renames himself “Joshua”) drops out of Harvard, travels to India and spends his life pursuing various forms of escape and enlightenment. His escape may be based on his fear of Huntington’s disease, but it smacks of selfishness and immaturity to those left behind to care for Eva.

During the production, the audience learns about the family’s history and its psychodynamics through a series of flashbacks between their modest, cozy New York 1960s home and a 1980s Colorado cabin. It is there that Joshua ultimately finds some satisfaction in the form of Buddhism taught by the smiling, enigmatic guru Rinpoche (Ogie Zulueta). Joshua shares the cottage with his upbeat, grounded companion Padma (the terrific Rinabeth Apostol). Her captivating disposition and unswerving support for Joshua leave us wanting to learn more about her.

The two brothers meet in the cabin after many years apart and renew their brotherly love as well as their old quarrels, but the siblings’ love wins out. The dramatic ending comes a bit too quickly to secure our unquestioning belief and acceptance but doesn’t detract from the overall achievement of the drama.

Red Winged Blackbird can be seen at Live Oak Theater in Live Oak Park, North Berkeley, through March 20. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $20.

A free Zoom discussion can be seen, with or without ticket purchase, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 16. Buddhist teacher Anouk Shambrook, Rabbi Terry Bard and john a. powell, director of UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, will speak about the effect of diseases and disabilities and Judaism and Buddhism. Playwright Alyosha Zim and Director Nancy Carlin will moderate.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.