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“This is the first time anybody’s paying money to see something I did,” Joshua Ford says, sipping coffee on the cold front steps of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, where his first play, Miklat, will open in just three days. “I’m turning 30 in a couple weeks. I’ve gotten married in the past two months. Turning 30, getting married, and having your professional premiere all within a few months—if I don’t have a psychotic break with reality, it’ll be a miracle.”
Actually, though, Ford seems pretty calm. He’s spent the past week skulking in the back of the DCJCC’s Theater J watching preview audiences devour Miklat, his comedy about a 23-year-old Jewish man who goes to Israel, becomes Orthodox, and breaks the news to his not-so-understanding parents on their trip to visit him. The play, which takes its title from the Hebrew word for “shelter,” is set against the backdrop of the Gulf War and mixes in enough humor to make its heavy issues palatable.
“I think people are really put off by religion,” says Ford, who is also Theater J’s associate artistic director. “It’s hard for us to have a serious conversation about faith, and it’s hard for us to take people of extreme faith seriously. So I thought my only shot to get people to take this play seriously was to deal with it through a certain amount of comedy.”
Ford spent a year in Israel after graduating from Iowa’s Grinnell College in 1995, and though he never felt inclined to become Orthodox, he became fascinated by friends who did. “You meet these people who have embraced this lifestyle, who’ve gone baal teshuva, which means ‘returned to the faith,’ and their stories about their pasts just come spilling out of them,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any news that people crave meaning, and if they don’t find it in the lives they’re given, then they’ll seek it or they’ll suffer. Many people suffer, and some seek. And once you start the process of seeking, there’s no guarantee where you’re going to end up.”
Ford, who started writing plays in high school (he almost didn’t graduate after tossing some profanity into one of his scripts), wrote Miklat in 1996 and then began the long journey of readings and revisions required to bring it to the stage. In the meantime, he worked as a freelance stage manager and spent four years organizing the annual Washington Jewish Film Festival, making the move to Theater J in 2000.
Now that he’s gotten a taste of what life is like for a playwright whose work gets produced, he’s addicted—and grateful. “There was a moment a couple of days into rehearsals where we were working on a scene, and they were reading it for the fourth or fifth time, and I drifted off for a moment and thought, I’m so sick of hearing this scene,” he recalls. “And then I sort of snapped to and said to myself, What are you talking about? You are so lucky to have these people taking your work so seriously that they would read it—never mind once, but a fourth time in an hour.
“To be a working playwright is a privilege,” Ford continues. “Once you’ve done it, it’s hard to go back.” —Aimee Agresti
Miklat runs to Feb. 3. For more information, call (202) 777-3229.