My Talk to the Women of Hadassah (part 1)

THE EVOLVING ROLE OF WOMEN
ON THE AMERICAN JEWISH (& ISRAELI) STAGE
(December 10, 2009)

Wendy Wasserstein (October 18, 1950 – January 30, 2006)

Today we’re going to talk about a procession of women whose lives have unfolded before us in bold and striking fashion over the last seven seasons on the Theater J stage. By women, of course, I mean characters – creations conjured by women (mostly and occasionally by men) who form a vibrant kind of feminist minyan; a robust chorus fronted by divas, and best supporting players with nary a jewish stereotype in the bunch. We don’t often think about the range of women our dramatic literature has provided us; we usually think of two famous playwrights and fold up the tent; Wasserstein and Hellman, and Lillian wasn’t too much of a Jewess in her art, let alone her life (at least not from the cursory bios I’ve read). But Wendy was, in her own inimitable way. And Wendy came to us to give birth to her final set of new works. And so that’s why today’s talk is dedicated to her, and that’s where we’re going to start…

In 2003: That’s when things got serious for us in our exploration of the drama–of the evolving role, the complicated identity–of the female protagonist on the Jewish stage.

We can appreciate the wealth of portraiture here by differentiating between these women; intuiting a basic set of typologies for these various representations of the matriarchy; or the sisterhood; of better, call it our own theatrical Hadassah. We can see these characters as expressions of 3 radically different kinds of female artists; as it so happens, American Jewish artists. And we’ll add a 4th type to the mix; a prototype conceived by non-Jewish authors about damaged characters who find wholeness in Jewish teaching.

In this talk I’ll also be talking about some non-American characters as well, and ultimately, about a host of exciting Israeli female authors where our talk today will end and where our current season will essentially culminate.

The protoypes that might be handy for us to think about today can be thought about in this way—and perhaps during today’s presentation, you can help me flesh these out and think of other typologies as well—beginning with Typology number one…

The AMERICAN JEWISH WOMAN AS SHE RELATES TO THE FAMILY; OR TO HER LACK OF ONE.

Or call it…

The AMERICAN JEWISH WOMAN NEGOTIATING HER PLACE RELATIVE TO SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS AND THE CARDS THAT LIFE HAS DEALT HER.

Or reduce this to a feeling; a flavor:

Bittersweet.

Which pretty much sums up the subject of FAMILY.

The aforementioned laureate of this typology, of course, is Wendy Wasserstein, tragically no longer with us, who wrote about family—about not having one herself as a single woman in THE HEIDI CHRONICLES—about belonging to one in THE SISTERS ROSENZWEIG—and in the world premieres which she unveiled at Theater J in 2004, after workshopping them with us at the kennedy Center in 2003, she looked at the ambivalence of belonging to a family juggling the multiple roles she was negotiating as both a mother, a daughter to a failing father with Alzheimer’s Disease, a Shakespearean scholar re-reading KING LEAR from a feminist perspective, a wife soon to be divorced from a weight lifting liberal arts professor, and a teacher being challenged by a conservative student she’s falsely accused of plagiarism.

That’s the plot of THIRD which would go on to be expanded from an hour long one-act to a two-act full-length which would be Wendy’s last New York premiere when it opened in the late fall of 2005, just weeks before her passing.

Eddie Borovich and Karhtryn Grody in Third, directed by Michael Barakiva

And here’s the companion piece to THIRD, a play that was so close to the bone for Wendy, she never allowed for it to be performed again. It was a about a writer and her phantom illness; an illness that would come to resemble Wendy’s in many ways, a cross between Bell’s Palsy, Lupus Disease, and leukemia. I share the following scene with you from WELCOME TO MY RASH because of its unbelievable relevance for today’s talk. And for the beautiful emotions it generates in reflecting on a life flecked with happiness, tragedy, disappointment and perseverance. This is from WELCOME TO MY RASH, a scene between a writer, her doctor, and her drip.

William Gillette, Kathryn Grody, and her drip in WELCOME TO MY RASH, by Wendy Wasserstein, directed by Michael Barakiva

Scene from WELCOME TO MY RASH
(c) Wendy Wasserstein, 2004
All rights reserved

SCENE SIX

(Kipling is at his desk, looking at papers. Flora walks in with a portable drip on wheels. She is wearing a suit.)

FLORA
Dr. Kipling?

KIPLING
Yes?

FLORA
Excuse me. I have something for you. I didn’t want to miss you.

KIPLING
Sorry I haven’t seen you. I was in Uzbekistan last week.

FLORA
Men are always saying that to me.

KIPLING
I heard your lip is still moving.

FLORA
Still moving.

KIPLING
And your feet?

FLORA
Still tingling. And my eyes still kaleidoscoping.

KIPLING
I was just looking at your blood counts. They are much better. I’d like to do a bone marrow at the end of eight weeks and see where we are.

FLORA
Fine.

KIPLING
You look very dressed up today. Are your reviewers coming?

FLORA
Oh, I’m just off to speak to the Jews.

KIPLING
The Jews?

FLORA
Yes. I’m urging them to leave Egypt.

KIPLING
Again?

FLORA
This time it’s the Beverly Hills Jews.

KIPLING
They already brought the Pharaohs with them.

FLORA
I’m the Hadassah author luncheon speaker. Alan Dershowitz cancelled.

KIPLING
And you are going there right after treatment?

FLORA
I thought it might be easier on a little Demerol.

KIPLING
You have great courage.

FLORA
It did occur to me to appear there with my partner here. “Good afternoon, ladies of Beverly Hills. I’d like you to meet my companion, the drip. We met at Cedars Sinai. So he comes from nice people. He’s very attentive and makes a nice living. I was waiting for the right relationship to come along, and now we’re announcing our commitment in the New York Times. My mother is thrilled. At least it’s someone in the medical profession. And it’s one of us.”

KIPLING
I’m glad after all this you still have your sense of humor. I would call my wife to go to your luncheon, but she hates those things. Hadassah used to harass her all the time.

FLORA
Why would Hadassah harass your wife?

KIPLING
My wife is Jewish. That’s how she first came across your work. When her sister read “Vicky The Magnificent” she called up right away to say, “Nancy, that’s you!” I think to my wife’s family, marrying me was like running off to join the circus. So do you speak to the Jews often?

FLORA
Only when they summon me. I went to Yeshiva as a child.

KIPLING
And now you are an atheist?

FLORA
Sometimes I wish I were. It would have made all of this a little easier. God’s will and all that. But, unfortunately, I like pork too much for that.

KIPLING
I’m not religious either. My father was a very strict Sikh. And you’re right – in some ways it would make it all so much easier. But any fundamentalism gets the world in serious trouble, don’t you think? No one is right with God on their side.

FLORA
Have you ever been to Israel?

KIPLING
Unfortunately, no.

FLORA
In Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock Mosque form a perfect triangle. In other words, there is obviously no one-sided solution.

KIPLING
I think the same is true with India and Pakistan.

FLORA
The day after September 11th I went to watch my daughter playing in her schoolyard. I suppose hope is always for solutions in the next generation. If the world survives.

KIPLING
None of us will survive. But we can try to extend our stay. Can I see a picture of your daughter?

FLORA
I’ve never shown you one?

KIPLING
You’re too busy writing Julia Roberts movies.

(She hands him a photograph.)

FLORA
This is Antonia.

KIPLING
She’s beautiful.

FLORA
Yes, she is. And very kind.

KIPLING
Like her mother.

FLORA
Kinder than her mother.

KIPLING
I’m sure she’s very bright.

FLORA
Brilliant. She likes to pretend she’s a contestant on American Idol. That’s a clear sign she’ll be president of M.I.T.

KIPLING
Is that what you’d like her to be?

FLORA
She can be a doctor. Or have five children with an Iowa farmer.

KIPLING
Why not be a writer?

FLORA
Too random. Too many opportunities to develop an intolerance to oneself.

KIPLING
Doesn’t every artist have to regenerate? I know a good scientist does.

FLORA
If you believe it still matters that you can.

KIPLING
Of course it matters. You can’t believe that it doesn’t.

FLORA
Doctor Kipling, I have come to the conclusion that I am allergic to my own bitterness. I believe it is my bitterness and not my white cell count that is the true Occum’s Razor here.

KIPLING
You’re not bitter. That’s not been my experience with you. I believe you have great courage and humanity.

FLORA
Well, there’s a thin line between complexity and ambiguity. I never knew what the hell that meant.

KIPLING
Neither did I. Flora, I think you are an extraordinary woman.

(He touches her hand.)

FLORA
Thank you.

(She suddenly cries and covers for herself.)

Well, the Jews are waiting for me.

KIPLING
I’d much prefer you to Alan Dershowitz.

(She takes out two books from her purse.)

FLORA
I almost forgot. These are for you.

(She hands him the books.)

FLORA
Vicky The Magnificent and Other Death Defying Stories. And The Complete Works of Veronica Geng.

* * *

(parts ii, iii & iv to be continued…)