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The cleansing power of rainwater meets the abrasive power of modernity in Mikveh, an uneven melodrama about domestic abuse and budding feminism in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Israel.

Hadar Galron’s play—an Israeli hit receiving its English language premiere at Theater J—is set in a bathhouse, and looks at the practical impact on the community of the Laws of Family Purity, which, as posited in the Torah, prohibit intercourse with a menstruating woman on grounds that she is ritually impure. Tradition has it that immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) on the evening of her seventh post-menstrual day cleanses her, making her fit once again for sexual relations.

Mikveh attendant Shoshana (Sarah Marshall) presides over this private ceremony with unquestioning efficiency, making sure the community’s women arrive at her mikveh pool with no traces of makeup or nail polish, and that they emerge suitably purified. Her customers—who include a frightened bride, a politician’s wife, a flibbertigibbet, and an aging gossip—rely on Shoshona’s discretion. The mikveh is one of the few places they can let their hair down, so to speak. But if there’s camaraderie, there’s also a shared sense of denial.

Looking on from the outside, it’s hard not to see these women as victims in a patriarchal belief system that tells them to be ashamed of their bodies. They don’t seem to see themselves that way, but their behavior speaks for them. An attendant recently drowned herself in a fit of depression; the politician’s wife always comes in bruised and claiming to have fallen; her 11-yr-old daughter’s not uttered a sound in years; the bride seems more terrified after marriage than she was before the wedding. And for reasons that only gradually become clear, all are nervous about the mikveh’s new hire, Shira (no-nonsense Lise Bruneau).

Shirley Serotsky’s staging—bright and brisk, if rarely emotionally persuasive—makes smart use of a back wall that dissolves on occasion to reveal an onstage pool and its naked occupants. The script being an uneasy mix of argumentative comedy and movie-of-the-week bathos, there’s not a lot of room for nuance. Still, a number of the city’s better actresses do their damnedest with lines that are either too on-the-nose (“can’t you see the lies, the rot”), or self-consciously pointed (“My mother can’t watch the children tonight because she’s having a really rough pregnancy”).

The Women, it’s not. Every ring of the phone brings exposition; every knock at the door, a complication, the most welcome being the arrival of Tonya Beckman Ross as a brash, bottle-blonde newcomer perplexed by her hubby’s conversion to orthodoxy. Ross is comic relief, and knows it, bless her. And her role provides a counterweight to those of her more devout sisters—Bruneau being the evening’s conscience, Marshall its unrebellious scold, and so on.

It’s easy enough to understand why the earnest social critique offered in Mikveh, tiptoeing carefully on a tightrope between religious and secular points of view, might find a public in Israel; less clear is what it has to offer mainstream audiences at Theater J. In an auditorium where almost no one wears a head scarf, and many of the men would likely call themselves feminists, the play’s balancing act smacks less of evenhandedness than of a desperate attempt not to offend.