Whether it is the piles of shoes left behind by Holocaust victims or the countless footwear-inspired idioms — filling someone’s shoes, walking a mile in someone’s shoes, putting the shoe on the other foot — the shoe is arguably our most evocative and symbolic item of clothing.
Which is one of many reasons Danny Aiello is so moving in his role as the title character — an Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor who runs a Hell’s Kitchen shoe repair shop — in Susan Charlotte’s Off-Broadway play, “The Shoemaker.” Set on 9/11, the play employs empty shoes as symbolic of the loss of life in both the Holocaust and the terrorist attack.
Directed by Antony Marsellis, the two-act drama opened last Sunday evening at the Acorn Theatre in Midtown, with Alma Cuervo and Lucy DeVito (daughter of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman) in the supporting cast. Peter Santilli of the Associated Press lauded Aiello’s performance, noting that “the actor is in fine form, alternating between nostalgic reflection and the trademark, fist-clenched outbursts of emotion that make him so watchable.”]
Aiello, a Bronx native who launched his career on Broadway in the late-1970s in the Albert Innaurato comedy “Gemini,” is among the most eminent character actors in Hollywood; his films include “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Do the Right Thing” (which snagged him an Oscar nomination), “Moonstruck” and “City Hall.” He has also starred in many television dramas, including Christine Lahti’s Oscar-winning short, “Lieberman in Love,” which aired on Showtime.
The actor first appeared in the original one-act version of “The Shoemaker” in 2001, then in the film version, “A Broken Sole,” featuring Margaret Colin, Judith Light, Bob Dishy, Laila Robins and John Shea. He did the one-act version again last year in New York and encouraged Charlotte to expand it into two acts.
“The Shoemaker” opens with a female customer named Hilary (played by Cuervo) staggering into the shoe repair shop with a broken sole. While Hilary wants to talk about her shock and distress, Giuseppe is fixated on another customer named Louise, who has not yet claimed the stiletto-heeled shoes that she dropped off the previous week on her way to her job in the Twin Towers. In the second act, Louise (played by DeVito) enters the store. Her ghostly presence triggers the shoemaker’s traumatic memories of his own past as a 9-year-old refugee from Fascist Italy who lost both his father and grandmother in the Holocaust.
His crinkly, slightly raspy voice coming over the phone, Aiello told The Jewish Week that “The Shoemaker” was originally focused on a non-Jewish Italian. “I didn’t want people to think of ‘The Sopranos,’ so we made him a Jewish Italian,” Aiello recalled.
Aiello, who is married to a Jewish woman, has played Jewish characters before, including Jack Ruby, the murderer of John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. In one memorable scene, Ruby and his sister sat on milk crates and ate deli sandwiches as a way of sitting shiva for John F. Kennedy, who Ruby viewed, in Aiello’s words, as “the savior of the Jewish people.” In turn, Aiello said, “Ruby is my Jewish hero.”
Playing a Holocaust survivor is, Aiello declared, the “role of a lifetime.” He views “The Shoemaker” as presenting a more authentic view of the Holocaust than many other plays and films. “I see very cerebral things explaining what occurred,” he said. “I prefer to explain it emotionally. When you hear me screaming, you’ll hear what the heart really feels like.” Aiello described his character as a fascinating bundle of contradictions — “sedate, angry, soft and completely out of his mind.”
In a talkback after a preview performance, Aiello told the audience that appearing in the play has been an important distraction from his own grief; his beloved son, stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, died last year of pancreatic cancer.
Playwright Charlotte, who hails from Bayside, Queens, has penned 10 full-length plays and 40 one-acts. She first met Aiello at an awards reception at the National Arts Club, at which her theater company, Food for Thought, was an honoree. She was inspired to write “The Shoemaker” after seeing a pile of footwear from the victims of the World Trade Center, which reminded her of Holocaust exhibits of empty shoes.
During the course of her research about the Holocaust, Charlotte was struck by how the Italians tightened the noose on their Jewish victims by a gradual process of taking away their property and privileges — beginning with removing their radios, then banning them from serving in the military, then barring from even being listed in the phone book. She called her play “a journey from 9/11 back to the Holocaust, in which every character is broken in one way or another.” The terrorist attack becomes for the main character, she said, an opportunity “to face all the demons and pain of the past and present, to work his way through it and resist becoming a victim.”
Edna Nahshon, who teaches Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the editor of “Jews and Shoes,” (Berg Publishers, 2008), a book of scholarly essays on topics ranging from the ancient halitzah ceremony (in which a Jewish widow freed herself of the obligation to marry her late husband’s brother by removing his shoe), to the boot-shaped tombstones in Ukrainian Jewish cemeteries, to the history of the Israeli sandal. The book points out that while a quarter of Eastern European Jewish men were tailors, the second most common occupation (about 14 percent of the male population) was that of shoemaker.
Nahshon has not yet seen the play, but she asserted that “images and metaphors of the Holocaust have taken over other disasters. We have Americanized and adopted the Holocaust — whenever you have a disaster, Holocaust imagery creeps in.” Shoes have become a pervasive way of memorializing tragedies, she pointed out, from a line of iron shoes exhibited on a bank of the Danube River in Budapest (where Jews were shot and thrown into the water during the Holocaust) to the piles of helmets and shoes used to memorialize Iraqi soldiers slain in our own day.
“Shoes bear the imprint of the person who wore them,” Nahshon added. “Unlike other pieces of clothing, shoes retain their shape. They are always waiting for someone to put them on.”
“The Shoemaker” runs through Aug. 14 at the Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd St. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. For tickets, $66.25, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.