We were back in the friendly confines of the otherwise cavernous Kennedy Center for their 12th annual Labor Day Weekend Page-to Stage Festival, (a project now made possible by one of the great theater supporters in our town, The Share Fund). As The Washington Post told readers earlier this week, Theater J’s been a hearty participant of this city-wide celebration of new work since the festival’s inception and it’s worth remembering and sharing with you now all the bountiful work we’ve presented at this annual gathering.
I go back in the interest of summoning some institutional memory—in this 18th season of my producing here at the J—Page-to-Stage provides as good an occasion as any to take stock in what we’ve done; what we’ve witnessed and created together. And in the Page-To-Stage Festival we’ve realized a two-fold ambition: of growing lots of brand new work (refining, revising and workshopping it assiduously) and, most importantly, of going forward to produce all this workshopped drama, seeing the script through to its most complete realization. We’ve let these new plays work their kinks out in public and have gone the distance with them through to production. That estimable track record of workshop-to-production is no accident; it’s all been planned. We’re a theater company that doesn’t believe in workshopping a play to death and seeing it whither on the vine before fruition, as so often happens (truly the subject for another posting but one worth mentioning here). We develop lots of work, but we remain committed to bringing much of that work forward to completion. When we announce a season in the spring, we make a point of scheduling at least one of our new works to have a Kennedy Center workshop. The results have always been gratifying; enriching.
Here’s a list of what we’ve presented over twelve successive Labor Day weekends (and there are lots of stories to tell about each one of these outings, but for now, let’s just run down the list and appreciate what the Kennedy Center opportunity has allowed us to do):
2002- THE LAST SEDER by Jennifer Maisel
2003 – PSYCHE IN LOVE, WELCOME TO MY RASH & THIRD by Wendy Wasserstein and
OH, THE INNOCENTS written and composed by Ari Roth
2004 – The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
2005- Picasso’s Closet by Ariel Dorfman
2006- Either, Or by Thomas Keneally
2007 – PROPHECY by Karen Malpede
2008 – Honey Brown Eyes by Stefanie Zadrevec and
Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears by Theodore Bikel
2009 – Mikveh by Hadar Galron
2010 – THE MOSCOWS OF NANTUCKET by Sam Forman and
PHOTOGRAPH 51 by Anna Ziegler
2011 – THE RELIGION THING by Renee Calarco
2012 – THE HAMPTON YEARS by Jacqueline E. Lawton
2013 – OUR SUBURB by Darrah Cloud
So for our 16th workshop reading at the Kennedy Center, this year we’ve presented Renee Calarco’s G-D’S HONEST TRUTH, which will be produced later this season in a world premiere staging by Jenny McConnell Frederick. We were thrilled to have all 7 cast members who’ll be doing the production later this season be with us. They included Audrey Bertaux, Rena Cherry Brown, Naomi Jacobson, Michael Kramer, John Lescault, Eric M. Messner and Sasha Olinick.
Our website describes the play this way:
Roberta and Larry always try to do the right thing – for their son (two and a half years into his engagement); for their marriage (never go to bed angry); and especially for their synagogue (which is always trying to build its membership—they’d be happy to tell you more…).
When they have the opportunity to help rescue a Holocaust Torah, they know they have to bring it to Temple Beth David. Partially inspired by the true story of Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-dubbed “Jewish Indiana Jones,” G-d’s Honest Truth asks how far we would go to believe a story that’s too good to be true. Told with humor and pathos by the Helen Hayes Award winning playwright and recent recipient of the 2014 Jewish Plays Project Award.
So the play’s based on an episode that’s hit close to home in the Jewish community of Greater Washingnton and was closely chronicled in the local press. Here are just a few of the links to news coverage for this story:
The original article ran in the Washington Post Magazine in January, 2010:
And below are the rest of the news stories that follow the unfolding (unraveling!) of the scheme, listed in chronological order.
Renee Calarco’s The Religion Thing launched Theater J’s first “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Festival” in 2012, giving us that rare phenomenon; a world premiere comedy by a local female writer that surpassed ticket revenue expectations and audience attendance projections. In short, it was popular! The Religion Thing was written with a candor and incisiveness that positioned friends and lovers on stage pushing each other to truly explore the subject of faith; how it still divided them, despite all the glossing over; despite the patina of happy creature comforts; Calarco’s characters confronted the humbling realization that they had been living a fraudulent relationship. An authentic relationship—one laced with honesty and forgiveness—was the sadder, truer pursuit, even if it meant that a couple go their separate ways. That play demonstrated Calarco’s gifts as a humane writer of humor who could plumb the depths of experience and touch an audience by exposing raw, unresolved issues and complicated emotions.
That bravery and empathy is expanded upon in G-d’s Honest Truth, as Calarco adapts a real-life scandal that touched religious circles in the Greater DC Jewish Community (and in Baltimore, New York, and New Jersey too). I’ve taken to comparing Calarco’s creative re-imagining of a real-life episode to what John Guare was doing in his masterpiece Six Degrees of Separation, wittily bringing to life and expanding upon a headline to show how good people become willingly duped out of more than just money and how a craving for spiritual authenticity threatens a marriage, a family structure, challenging a community to put its true values in order.
I’m wondering what folks in attendance think of this comparison. In what other ways might G-d’s Honest Truth be a Jewish suburban spin on Six Degrees of Separation? Or does it remind you of another play? We talked about Our Town today in our discussion as well, referencing the play’s multi-generational portrait of a community. We’ve had plenty of opportunity this past season to think about Thornton Wilder’s classic, as we presented an updated spin and homage to it in Darrah Cloud’s Our Suburb.
Calarco’s play’s clearly got lots of resonance and lineage and it’s familiar to us from its newsy origins. But it’s also a pretty original imagining too, no? What struck you, I wonder, about this play, as being new and revelatory?
We’re going to hearing in the comments from folks who attended the reading today, and from folks who are reading the manuscript; new student subscribers attending their first Theater J sponsored event. We welcome all responses, as this should prove to be a play that will have the whole community talking once its fully staged. We imagine some sensitivities will be ruffled. Will some be offended? Angered? Moved? Does the play help make the case for a what theater like our is good for? What kind of forum (and service) we provide the community? Or this drama a tad too impudent for its own good? Those who’ve gotten a sneak peak at this piece can get us started on the robust discussion that’s sure to come!