It was obvious: The staged reading of Women's Minyan (Minyan Nashim) was the strongest entry in Theatre Or's stellar November 2004 festival of staged readings, Voices from the Holy Land. Perhaps this is not surprising after all, since the original version of Naomi Ragen's play, in Hebrew, had by then logged its fourth full year in residency at the national theater of Israel, the Habimah in Tel Aviv.
But a work that could be mistaken for a cross-gender and cross-cultural transplant of Reginald Rose's famous 1956 courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men is actually based on the harrowing, real-life--and still unfolding--experiences of Rachel S., the wife of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in the Meah Shearim community of Jerusalem, who has been denied access to her 12 children ever since divorcing her husband 12 years ago.
In the world of the play, Chana, Rachel's character, returns to her home two years after she fled in fear for her life. At first, she confronts her accusers--a cadre of ultra-Orthodox women, most of them actually related to her--with a rabbinical court order that mandates visitation with the children they have hidden from her.
When the women refuse to comply, Chana proposes this deal: If the group will take a sacred oath to hear her out--"listen honestly and judge me righteously"--she will permit them to decide if she ever sees her children again.
What follows, to be sure, is a fairly gripping psychological drama, particularly in the way it parses out family grudges that are long and closely held. At first, an American audience may be astonished to learn the identities of Chana's bitterest enemies. But even more than this, Women's Minyan is an intriguing speculation on how, even in a culture that tightly controls their civic identity and public appearance, a community of women finds a way to grant a fundamental, grass-roots justice previously denied in the courts of men.
This co-production by Theatre Or and Streetsigns Center accomplishes this through a series of singular performances. Regional actors currently wondering what standard of excellence they must achieve for consideration among this year's superlatives should consult Jan Daub Morgan's study in sang-froid as Chana, and particularly Sylvia Dante's searing portrayal of Frume, an avenging force of nature inspired by the Furies themselves. Barbara Lang's work as mother-in-law Golda is easily in the same class, although Ragen's script flirts with the saccharine in her character at first.
Kendall Rileigh's gaunt work as Bluma and Sarah Kocz's Adina add rock-solid performances to two already impressive resumes, and Sharlene Thomas and Amy Flynn amuse, of course, as the community gossips, Eta and Tovah.
To be clear, this first fully-staged production in English is not perfect. The night we saw it, a show obviously rehearsed in a much smaller room was still adjusting to the Reynolds Theater space--an irritant that should be addressed by this time. The exposition at the beginning of the first act comes off a bit kludgy at a couple of points, and the melodramatic light and music changes that accompany each woman's oath should obviously be minimized or discarded at first opportunity. Ditto for the "ghost girls"--mawkish, unnecessary on-stage representations of Chana's remembered children.
The outbursts from the chorus of unseen men quoting from Jewish law also veered toward melodrama, ultimately disrupting the world of the performance more than reinforcing it. Their contribution removed all subtlety, rendering Women's Minyan something of a blunt instrument at the very end--an impression absent from last November's reading.
Still, since works in translation frequently require adjustments more significant than these, this script finds these shores in better shape than many first arrivals. Recommended.
OK, I'll confess: Sometimes critics just don't get it. But three days after seeing Triad Stage's version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw , I'm wondering exactly what there is to get. I refer in particular to designer Takeshi Kata's baffling--and apparently all-but-ghost-proof--set of industrial scaffolding; heavy-duty, opaque, vertical plastic blinds (like the ones you plow through when walking into a refrigerated room); and sickly yellow-green lights above an unadorned cement floor.
Not the first thing you think of either when it comes to Gothic horror from the 1890s? Thought so. What's worse, Kata's empty choices seem to reinforce the thinness of a production in which two actors represent seven characters (give or take an hallucination or two). It all starts to look a bit like theater on the cheap--particularly at these prices.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation rises and falls on the strength of two actors to tell a story--and of a director to maximize the suspense of James' novella.
I have no critique of Mark Boyette's uncanny work, particularly as the Bly House chef Mrs. Gross, or Miles, the questionable child. Melodie Sisk's work as the governess is similarly strong.
Director Preston Lane digs deep into the psychology of The Turn, probing the ambiguities of James' text. Some 35 years before radio shows like Lights Out! and Inner Sanctum and a generation of equivalent film auteurs, James correctly intuited that the monsters one can't see are inevitably more horrifying than those one can. By the end, have we witnessed exorcism or manslaughter? Where exactly is that underlying evil that seems to run, invisibly, just beneath the stream of momentary events? At its best, this production keeps us guessing.
So it's frustrating when we ultimately sense that Lane (and his design crew) never quite close the deal. True, the audience occasionally gets goosed by sudden hands that reach out from the darkness. But a production that could be significantly scarier stays too high-minded to actually deliver the ghoulish goods. The result: a Halloween production that's short a haunt. Or two.
****The Front Page , Playmakers Rep--Veteran Broadway director Gene Saks captures the gallows humor and exquisitely refined cynicism of an odd fraternity of beat reporters pulling the overnight shift before a dawn state execution in dear, corrupt old Chicago. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's classic 1928 newsroom comedy captures the addictive, centripetal force of breaking news without ignoring the ethical shortcuts, the convenient politics or the insiders' dirty pool of these imperfect scribes.
Grant Goodman was winning but a little muggy when we saw him as ace reporter Hildy Johnson. Mike Genovese rendered an irascible editor Walter Burns that was etched in granite.
The pair was surrounded by fine supporting work from newsroom denizens Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Ray Dooley and David zum Brunnen, while Kenneth Strong and John Feltch amused as two dullards from different sides of the law. Rand Bridges and Samuel Maupin represented crooked civic authorities before a comic turn by Ken Jennings as executionee Earl Williams.
Strongly recommended for general populations--and mandatory for members of the press. (Through Oct. 30.)
***Moon Over Buffalo , Raleigh Little Theatre--This groan-filled mid-century backstage comedy got extra mileage from Jenny Anglum's tender ministrations as semi-stoic drama queen Charlotte Hay, Joyce Weiser's priceless "What, me worry?" double-takes as show-biz mama Ethel, and Collette Rutherford's Rosalind, gamely going down with the ship in a doomed send-up of Blithe Spirit. And we'd swear Greg Flowers became increasingly boneless the more soused his leading man (and part-time nincompoop) George Hay got.
E-mail Byron Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org.