Telling Tall Tales

It is just minutes before Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew is fixin' to start, and Jonathan Adam Ross, the show's creator, writer, and only performer, is out in the audience schmoozing with the crowd. If you didn't know him, you'd think he was just another spectator in his casual but fitted white T-shirt and jeans. In a transition as smooth as silk, Ross is standing before us introducing his show and thanking us for coming out on this cold, wintry New York evening. And then his story begins. At no time do you feel as if you are watching a performance or a stand-up routine. Instead, it as if you are gathered around a living room listening to stories about being Jewish in the South, much in the same way that Ross describes his family sitting around his dining room table sharing stories about his deceased mother.

Storytelling has been a longstanding tradition of both Southerners and Jews. One can imagine two elderly Georgians in rocking chairs on a stoop on a sweltering summer day, shooting the breeze about days gone by. Similarly, Judaism's history contains loads of unwritten tales passed down orally through the generations. Ross alludes to these traditions, particularly to the practice of telling stories several times over, enhancing and improving upon them each time. Indeed, both cultures are guilty of this sort of exaggeration for effect. It is what makes the stories themselves so endearing.

Ross portrays a host of characters, some Jewish, some not; some Southern, some not. Most notable are his father, known for his disregard for consonants; his non-Jewish neighbor Jim Griggs, who collected yarmulkes (prayer skullcaps) as a hobby; and his buddy E.Y., named so because his family uses letters for names, and by the time he was born, "all the good ones were taken."

But the standout character is Ross's brain-damaged sister, Julie. With precision and utmost respect and love, Ross portrays her silly antics (such as believing as a teenager that when her brother "got her nose," she might never get it back) as both humorous and deeply saddening.

You don't have to be Jewish or from the South to enjoy the show, but it helps. References to Waffle House, that ubiquitous, Southern late-night dining establishment Ross describes as "a dirty, redneck IHOP," got chortles from the Southerners in the audience, but flew over the heads of others. Similarly, the notion that "Adon Olam," the prayer that ends most Jewish services, is the Jewish "Hi Ho" (from Disney's Snow White) made waves in this mostly Jewish audience, but might have eluded those who weren't Jewish. Still, you don't have to be Jewish to find yourself cackling uncontrollably during Ross's hilarious renditions of Broadway musicals sung in Hebrew at the Jewish summer camp where he serves as drama director.

The camp is the same setting where Ross's narrative takes a more serious tone. His description of the impact he has made on a young jock-turned-performer, coming from the very proud father, is a poignant portrait of acceptance. Ross turns somber at other points as well, particularly in his stories about his mother's struggle with, and death from, breast cancer, which was added to the show several years into its run and just five weeks after her death.

Echoing the show's varying tones, Ross played portions from the titular Marc Cohn song on a piano in the corner. Following a burst of laughter at the end of a story, Ross's playing tended to be fast and energetic. Between more sorrowful bits, his playing was more melodic and graceful. (The aptness of this song, of course, lies in the lyrics: "And she said, 'Tell me, are you a Christian child?' / And I said, 'Ma'am, I am tonight,' " a reference to Cohn's being Jewish.)

In this delightful production, Ross places himself in the league of talented storytellers like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. One audience member, who is familiar with most of Ross's stories, having heard them throughout their friendship, told me it seemed that he was "always acting," even during one-on-one story sharing, because of his theatrical nature. I suggested that perhaps it was the other way around, that Ross was not "acting" during conversations but instead was "having a conversation" while acting onstage.

In either case, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy hearing these stories. Director Chantal Pavageaux notes in the program, "It's a superhuman feat to recreate the past, enliven the dead, recall the tiniest nuances of someone's voice, their face, the idiosyncrasies that made them unique." Perhaps Ross is indeed Superman

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