Valerie Leonard’s engrossing performance as a powerful matriarch lifts the Theater J premiere of the English-language The Jewish Queen Lear beyond a nostalgia-laden look back to a once highly successful Yiddish-language play entitled Mirele Efros (1898) written by Jacob Gordin. The recent English translation is by Nahma Sandrow (read Ravelle Brickman’s interview with Sandrow here).
The Jewish Queen Lear takes on issues of pride and jealousy, family power struggles and rivalries, and the need for family to assure survival. What makes it work and escape some of its melodrama is Valerie Leonard’s hypnotic handiwork as The Jewish Queen Lear’s tent-pole of a central character, Mirele Efros.
Efros is a widow with a dominating personality; both within her extended family and in the successful business she runs since the death of her husband. She is also of a certain age dealing with “seemingly” ungrateful children, “what’s in-it-for-me” in-laws, and secrets she has kept hidden away from nearly everyone. As Efros, Leonard is absorbing even when she is just standing ramrod still, with steely eyes set; the only sound the tap of her cane on a wooden floor.
Directed by Theater J’s Artistic Director, Adam Immerwahr, The Jewish Queen Lear is produced in partnership with the Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies Program. Harking back to its roots as an 1898 play, the production is set in a time period when family might still hand-pick the match of a new bride for a son. It is also a time when a young bride could be expected to move into the home of her new husband with her new in-laws.
The specifics of The Jewish Queen Lear: Widow Mirele Efros has two sons (the oldest, Yosele, played by Christopher Warren, Georgetown University ‘20, and Daniel, the younger son, played by Charlie Trepany, Georgetown University ’19). Efros has run her late husband’s business with the help of her business manager Shalemn (portrayed by Frank X with depth, dignity and sincerity) and her loyal maidservant Makhle (winningly and wisely portrayed by Sue Jin Song, who is also an on-stage narrator). Efros’s future in-laws are played by the superbly comical Tonya Beckman and a more sedate Karl Kippola. Over time Efros is directly challenged by her new daughter-in-law Shaindl (Healy Knight, Georgetown ’21) who has married Yosele in an arranged contract. The once innocent, submissive Shaindl becomes bolder in her desires and demands on her mother-in-law as time passes. She also treats her husband Yosele as if he is a pet on a leash.
What transpires next it the crux of this unrelenting family drama. Questions arise including how family troubles are depicted and how might they be resolved. Has Efros been too domineering? Is there a price to be paid for arrogance? Does trying to have a “say” in a household make someone ungrateful and selfish? Who does one blame if they don’t have a good heart? The drama even asks, what does the Biblical notion of honoring one’s parents truly mean?
The creative production values for The Jewish Queen Lear are extremely high. Andrew R. Cohen’s scenic design is one of unexpected layers, depicting those of high means and those of lesser economic stature. Colin K. Bills’ lighting design adds shadings befitting what is happening on stage. And then there is Ivania Stack’s costume design, especially for Valerie Leonard as Mirele Efros. When Leonard first appears in a fitted, high-buttoned to the neck, deep red outfit, she projects sheer authority. It is a stately power suit to end all power suits.
The Jewish Queen Lear is the first full production of Theater J’s Yiddish Theater Lab. The goal of the lab is to revive and reimagine neglected works of historical and artistic significance, bringing them to a modern audience.
The production of The Jewish Queen Lear is memorable for Valerie Leonard’s performance as Mirele Efros. It is memorable as well for providing modern and younger audiences the opportunity to take in a play that once enthralled the Yiddish-speaking world; a world that once numbered in the millions and had its own Broadway on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
The Jewish Queen Lear is a Theater J production, playing through April 7 at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center in the Gonda Theatre, 37th and O Streets NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-777-3210 or purchase them online.