Thankless children and overbearing parents are the stuff of Jewish drama, at home and on stage. This month, the queen of dramatic Jewish mothers, Mirele Efros, has been resuscitated in Theater J’s “The Jewish Queen Lear.” The production, which runs through April 7 on the campus of Georgetown University while the Edlavitch DC-JCC renovates, has never before been seen in English. Penned in 1898 by Russian-American Jewish playwright Jacob Gordin, “Mirele Efros” – the original title — found a rapt audience of both the working class and Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia on New York’s Lower East Side where the greatest concentration of Jews lived in 2,000 years.
A century ago, the world of Yiddish theater was entering its Golden Age. Audiences flocked to see entertaining plays penned by a cadre of prolific writers and actors. Most either romanticized the Jewish past or reflected back the challenges of Jewish immigrant family life – warts and all — to an avid audience of recent emigres who saw themselves and their troubles in the characters. A one-time newspaperman, Gordin became a theater revolutionary, introducing realistic scenes and characters like tailors, peddlers and policemen speaking in vernacular Yiddish to the stage at a time when famous performers would often stand and declaim under a spotlight.
Alas, what was realistic 120 years ago, today feels plenty old fashioned. Nahma Sandrow’s translation maintains plenty of the moralistic aphorisms, and peppers in some wry Jewish curses and bits of Torah, but it still feels like a black-and-white movie in an era when we’re accustomed to HD and surround sound. Even updating costumes (by Ivania Stack) with current-day clothing – aside from Mirele Efros – is not enough to breath new life into this 2 ½-hour production. Translation feels like a first step, a playwright or dramaturg could have re-thought some of the stilted dialogue and found a fresh approach to this musty material.
Director Adam Immerwahr, who is in his fourth season as Theater J’s artistic director, takes a workaday approach to staging. The casting, including Georgetown University undergraduates, too, is mostly drab and unremarkable, save for a standout performance by patrician Valerie Leonard as Mirele. Immerwahr asserts a contemporary vision for this “Jewish Queen Lear,” beyond costuming and sets, in the look and ethnicity of the actors. And while it might be politically incorrect to point it out, Mirele’s sons, daughter-in-law, in-laws and employees wouldn’t be mistaken for Jews in almost any setting and at times struggle over hard-to-pronounce Yiddish diminutives of characters’ names.
Mirele Efros has built a successful family business and a reputation as a pious and generous scion of the community following her husband died years earlier. She selects a bride for her son – seeking a young woman from a lower level of society, hoping for a good match and a marriage based on values, not money. Alas, the in=laws and their daughter are grasping opportunists, lacking in social graces and charitable deeds. When her son’s new wife Sheyndele demands her portion of the family business, Mirele grudgingly acquiesces and leaves them to their own devices, as her sons and their families run the business into the ground. Playwright Gordin’s Shakespearean echoes come in the tightknit household and loyal servants, the fall of an aristocratic protagonist and, with a nod to “King Lear,” the struggles and demise of ungrateful children. Unlike Shakespeare, though, Gordin eschews a tragic ending; instead of dead bodies, there’s a bar mitzvah.
With a queenly gait, imperious gaze and impeccable posture, Leonard exudes confidence and self-sacrifice enough to play the Ur Jewish mother. In fact, her Mirele could swallow up any Tiger Mom in a single bite. Tall, elegant, and beautiful in her floor-length skirts and fashionably belted kimonos, Leonard’s salt-and-pepper hair frames an authoritative profile. No one else comes close to holding the spotlight in this production. In fact, Healy Knight as daughter-in-law Sheyndele with her girlish voice is an unfortunately ineffective sparring partner, while the two sons – Christopher Warren as Yosele and Charlie Trepany as Daniel – would be better as insipid frat boys than selfish businessmen. As Makhle, the household’s ingratiating maidservant, Sue Jin Song is charged with the comic relief. While she avoids playing to type – the Yiddish matron – many of the plainly obvious jokes lose their bite in the melodrama.
“The Yiddish Queen Lear” is a component of Theater J’s multi-year Yiddish Theater Lab, which has been taking a deep dive into the Yiddish theatrical canon through play readings and discussions since early 2018. A new series of three Yiddish play readings will be announced later this month. While dusting off and restaging theatrical relics like “Mirele Efros” might intrigue scholars and theater completists, the resulting “Queen Lear” feels musty and outmoded. And yet, Yiddish theater is having a mini-moment. “Indecent,” a reimagining of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” had a 2015 Broadway run and a recent production in DC at Arena Stage, while a Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof” continues to sell out off-Broadway. With interest in Yiddish theater seemingly on the rise, one can only hope that Theater J’s Yiddish Theater Lab, it can find a way to not merely restage but re-invent Yiddish classics in a manner compelling enough to draw present-day audiences. Alas, like a Jewish mother with thankless children, it’s a hard task.
The Yiddish Queen Lear, by Jacob Gordin, through April 7, Theater J at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre, Davis Performing Arts Center, 37th and O Streets, NW. Tickets $64-$34. Call (202) 777-3210 or visit www.theaterj.org. The theater recommends using taxi and ride services to and from the front gates at 37th Street and O Street, NW, or using the cash-only visitors parking garage on Canal Road, NW.