Before the Holocaust, millions of Jewish people throughout Europe and around the world spoke Yiddish. Among the most popular and prolific Yiddish dramatists was Jacob Gordin, whose 1898 drama Mirele Efros receives its English language premiere, under the new title The Jewish Queen Lear, at Theater J, thanks to translator, playwright, and theater historian Nahma Sandrow.
Outside a hotel, lightning flashes and thunder crashes. Makhle (an engaging Sue Jin Song) sets the scene, establishing the audience as her confidante. She’s the maidservant to Mirele Efros (Valerie Leonard), the wealthy widow of a renowned rabbi. Mirele has brought her entourage from Grodno to Slutsk for the wedding of her eldest son, Yosele (Christopher Warren) to Sheyndele (Healy Knight). The in-laws, Khane-Dvoryre (Tonya Beckman) and Rav Nokhem (Karl Kippola), also come from auspicious rabbinical lines, but Nokhem’s constant declarations of, “So it is written,” coupled with Kippola’s highly expressive hand flourishes, seem like attempts to distract from the fact that he is less of a sage than his title indicates. Khane, meanwhile, is aggressively materialistic. Mirele knew the family was poor, but their crassness causes her to second guess the engagement, relenting only when the groom insists on his love for a bride who appears at first not to have inherited her parents’ faults.
Three years later, the in-laws from Slutsk have taken up habitation in the Efros household, and both Yosele and his brother Donye (Charlie Trepany) have become increasingly hedonistic. Soon, Sheyndele is demanding Mirele turn the business over to Yosele and Donye and dismiss the trusted business manager Rav Shalmen (Frank X). It is not long before the humiliated Mirele exiles herself from the household with Makhle in tow.
While Gordin drew inspiration from King Lear, the Ashkenazi Jews of the Polish cities of Grodno and Slutsk (now in modern-day Belarus) are not the warrior aristocracy of ancient Britain. Living a segregated existence in Europe, the educated class was made of Yeshiva-educated rabbis, and scions of prominent rabbinical dynasties attracted business and authority. Mirele’s autocratic pride in secular matters is tempered by humility towards God, and her power is always tempered by an impulse to give charity. Tellingly, Gordin not only portrays the younger generation as inept at business but as uninterested in continuing the Efros family’s legacy of rabbinical scholarship and philanthropy. Yet Mirele is made of stronger stuff than Lear: Humiliation does not lead her to madness.
Leonard creates a nuanced yet regal portrait of Mirele, possessed with sardonic wit and shrewd pragmatism guided by ethical wisdom, while subtly showing in her body language the toll that age and the ongoing conflict with her children and in-laws has from scene to scene. The loyalty Mirele inspires in Shalmen and Makhle is believable. Frank X, likewise, has a physical eloquence that gives his Shalmen dignity. Georgetown undergraduates Warren, Knight, and Trepany provide reliable support for the veteran cast members.
Director Adam Immerwahr has opted for the occasional knowing anachronism in a story set in the late 19th century Pale of Settlement. Fashions of Gordin’s time co-exist with ours, and the Judaism of the characters is a mixture of tradition and more recent innovations, perhaps representing an alternate history in which the Yiddish world did not suffer the cataclysm that was 20th century Europe.
Music director James Khoury has developed some gorgeous arrangements of Jewish liturgy including a niggun (a wordless melody offered as a prayer in Judaism) sung by the ensemble. (Alana Dodds Sharp’s voice is a particular asset as the cantor.) Costume designer Ivania Stack has created an elegant wardrobe for Mirele: long cloaks with velvet collars, Japanese-print house frocks, and gowns fitting a woman whom Makhle likens to a czarina, while Andrew R. Cohen’s design for the Efros home, recurring rectangular panels in aquamarine, is a colorful container for a living room drama.
The Jewish Queen Lear is ultimately a melodrama of the sort that dominated the popular theater more than a century ago, but it is an exceptionally well crafted one, with its ethical themes granting gravitas to what was even then an exercise in nostalgia. Sandrow’s translation gives it a modern polish that keeps this gem of a lost world from feeling like an antique, but with this, the inaugural production of Theater J’s Yiddish Theater Lab, one wonders if there are more unconventional treasures awaiting rediscovery.
To April 7 at 37th and O streets NW. $30–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.