SCARBOROUGH – A father and son from Scarborough take lead roles

in a holiday play set to hit the stage in Westbrook.

SCARBOROUGH – Hal Cohen, 54, of Scarborough, wasn’t looking to become an actor. He only meant to take an improv class, in hopes of exercising some of the artistic energies he let lay fallow while pursuing a career in medicine.

Josh Cohen, 18, didn’t know he’d discover in that class a career aspiration. He just wanted to spend some time with his dad.

Now, six years later, the father-and-son acting team is sharing the stage for the second time, once again playing key roles in the annual holiday celebration of Jewish culture by Acorn Productions, a nonprofit theater group based in Westbrook’s historic Dana Warp Mill.

In “The Wandering Beggar,” the Cohens play different stages in the life of Yiddish folk character Simple Shmerel, a hero of less-than-stellar intellect cast out of his Eastern European shtetl as a young boy who nonetheless proves himself the equal of rabbis and Cossacks alike.

The play, staged in a series of vignettes, is an original adaptation of the 1931 children’s book by Solomon Simon, by local playwright Howard Rosenfield of Brunswick. Staged with permission of the author’s family, the play, like the book, embraces a lighthearted appeal as a means to address more difficult themes, such as war, prejudice and the poverty of some amidst the plenty of others.

“‘The Wandering Beggar’ is the story of one man, booted from his home as a child and forced to beg, who yet makes something worthwhile of himself, and brings the world great good,” says Acorn’s producing director, Michael Levine. “Its message of courage and persistence in the face of adversity and struggle is an inspiring and moving one.”

For the elder Cohen, his persistence lay in clinging to his childhood dreams despite a career path that took him far from his early ambitions. Now a physician at SMMC PrimeCare Internal Medicine, in Old Orchard Beach, Hal Cohen grew up wanting to either play ball for the Phillies of his native Philadelphia or become a famous artist.

“In my mind, I was never quite good enough to do what I wanted to do in art, but the artistic side of me has been there forever,” he said. “I just didn’t know what my canvas was.”

The changed about six years ago when a friend of Cohen’s from New York, Mark Nutting, staged an improvisation acting class in Saco. Cohen took the class on a whim.

“I’m a pretty silly, goofy individual who just happens to have this very serious job,” he said, “so, I thought, sure, why not.”

Josh, 12 at the time, went to one class just to watch, but was allowed to join in when some participants failed to show.

“I had no real interest in acting,” Josh recalled “I’d been to plays and stuff, but never thought of it as something I could actually do. But I took part in the improv and held my own, surprisingly, and that was it, I just fell in love with it.”

From there the tables turned. Josh began performing in school plays, eventually making the leap to regional theater. He caught the acting bug strong enough that he plans to attend University of Southern Maine next year as a theater major, with a minor in business.

Meanwhile, Hal took a series of acting and improv classes with Rachel Flehinger of Portland, crediting her with encouraging his muse.

“If she had been awful or scary that would have been the end of it, but she was great,” he said. “Still, I had no intention of doing anything with it other than taking classes.”

And it was for his son that Hal Cohen continued to study the craft, just as he took a nanotechnology class with his older son, Noah, who went to college for engineering.

“I just wanted to be able to speak their language, to understand their passions,” he said. “The only thing I’m not humble about is that you’re looking at the best father in the world. Others may be as good as me, but none better. That’s the one thing I take pride in.”

That interest in the lives of his sons, a willingness to be there in full, to understand, encourage, participate, and, when appropriate, simply stand back and marvel, is, says Josh, what has helped give him the confidence to pursue his dreams in ways Hal never could as a young man.

Even more tellingly, he says, was his father’s unyielding support when Noah switched gears, leaving the University of Pennsylvania to come home to Southern Maine Community College in South Portland to pursue a culinary career. To some, the shift from engineer to cook might seem like a downward step, but Hal was completely supportive of his older son – something that was not lost on his younger son.

“He’s always supported me no matter what,” Josh said. “In all honesty, that’s why I’m able to do this. If he wasn’t there for me the way he is, I probably wouldn’t be on the path I’m taking. I’d probably just go into business straight out, with nothing at all do to with theater.”

Luckily, Josh got the encouragement not everyone enjoys.

“I think Josh has got very good potential,” said director Harlan Baker. “He picks up things very, very fast, and he’s got a great voice. He can project maturity in a way that a lot of people his age can’t.”

Baker first cast the Cohens last year, although Hal admits that it took a dare from his son in order for him to audition.

The experience, he says, was exhilarating.

“In my day job, I’m an expert,” he said. “It was fascinating to be in that situation where I was an absolute novice. It was an entirely new experience. Josh was far superior to me. Our roles were reversed and I was the child.”

Both Cohens say appearing together in Acorn Productions qualifies as “the most tremendous father-and-son thing.” But for Hal if goes beyond that, as he also gets to watch his son become a part of a local theater group with “so much amazing talent.”

“That’s been my greatest pleasure,” he said. “It makes me very proud to watch him be assimilated into this community, and to see how well respected he is, not just for his talent, but for the work ethic he’s shown.”

Acting is, after all, not all play. As any of the players in “The Wandering Beggar” will tell you, a great deal of effort goes into the production.

The cast of “The Wandering Beggar” includes a mix of veteran performers, students from the Acorn Acting Academy, and newcomers to the Portland theater scene. In addition to the Cohens, there are Kara Haupt and Seth Berner, both veterans of several Maine Playwrights Festivals, local professional actress Laura Vitanza, Acorn students Charlie Cole and Cynthia Eyster, and newcomers David Handwerker, Jesse James, Jaime Rodriquez, and Erik Tainter. Original period music has been composed by Jim Alberty.

Levine says Acorn’s mission is “to invigorate the community of performing artists in Southern Maine, to nurture new performance pieces, develop artist collaborations, train new talent, and make the arts accessible to a wide spectrum of the general public.”

One look at the Cohens on stage together makes it clear, Acorn has met every goal.

Hal Cohen, left, and his son Josh, both of Scarborough, play out
a scene from “The Wandering Beggar” on the shores of the
Presumpscot River near Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook. The duo leads
Acorn Productions’ original adaptation of  the play, which
premieres Dec. 2 at the troupe’s stage in the nearby Dana Warp
Mill. (Photo courtesy of Acorn Productions)

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