Monday, August 17, 2020

"25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Harriet Island Target Stage

The last time I saw a play was on February 22. In fact I saw two plays that day (as I sometimes had to do to fit everything in in the good old days) - the Children's Theatre's new original play Spamtown, USA, and Theatre Pro Rata's production of Silent Sky at the Bell Museum. If someone had told me that I wouldn't see a play live and in-person for almost six months, I would not have believed them. I would have said that's impossible. But a few days after seeing those plays, I left the country to spend two weeks in paradise (aka New Zealand), and returned home to find that the world had turned upside down. We found ourselves in a global pandemic that we're still very much in, with theater being one of the first things to go, and unfortunately one of the last to return. The good news is some #TCTheater companies have gotten creative in this time (see also Park Square Theatre's delightful original Zoom play series RIDDLE PUZZLE PLOT). Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is opening their 26th season with an outdoor, masked, socially distanced play. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to gather together again and listen to a story, simply and beautifully told. To anyone else who's craving that, go see this play! And not just because it's the only thing out there right now in terms of live theater, but also because it's a really moving, funny, relatable, heart-warming play.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother is a perfect play to be performed in this setting. It's a two-person cast, and basically a conversation between two women, telling many women's stories, that doesn't require any specific set or scene changes or anything technically difficult. But what it does have is great storytelling. Written by comedian Judy Gold, along with playwright Kate Moira Ryan, it explores the relationship between the "typical Jewish mother" (spoiler alert: there is no such thing) and her children. Judy (played by Kim Kivens) talks about her relationship with her mother, which is interwoven with stories from the over 50 Jewish mothers the playwrights interviewed (all played by Laura Stearns). Questions asked include "What makes Jewish mothers different from non-Jewish mothers?" "What's your biggest regret?" "Who's your favorite Jewish mother?" and "How many times a day do you talk to your children?" Some of the mothers' stories were hilarious, some tragic, some poignant; I now know what it's like to cry under a mask!

I am neither Jewish nor a mother, but I still found the play relatable in terms of the parent/child relationship. And it also gave me new insight into where the stereotype of the Jewish mother came from. Judy explains that the shadow of death hangs over the Jewish mother as she's raising her children, because of the centuries long history of persecution of the Jewish community around the world, which unfortunately continues today.

Laura Stearns and Kim Kivens, photo courtesy of MJTC
Both Kim and Laura are so natural and personable in their portrayal of all the characters. They open the play informally talking to the audience, acknowledging the weird situation we're in, and explaining how the play is going to go. Then they very naturally launch into the script, but still adding little asides to the audience. They speak into handheld mics, which help to make sure that everyone in the audience (spaced at least six feet apart per the orange flags in the grass) can clearly hear the play (sound design by Reid Rejsa). There's no contact for tickets or programs, and everyone is masked (except for the actors once they begin the play, standing well apart on stage). Everything ran very smoothly at the performance I attended at Harriet Island in St. Paul, and I (who hasn't really been going anywhere or doing anything) felt very safe.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's live, in-person, outdoor production of the funny, poignant, and engaging 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother continues at public parks and private homes through August 30 (click here for the full schedule and locations). After that, their 26th season continues with two virtual streaming shows (an updated version of Avi Aharoni's fantastic solo autobiographical Fringe show Operation: Immigration and a Musical Revue featuring Jewish composers), and (hopefully) a return to the Highland Park Community Center next spring for The People's Violin, postponed from earlier this year.