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MINNPOST An actual play, live and in person

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

Aug. 20, 2020

Laura Stearns and Kim Kivens in “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.”

Photo by Sarah Whiting

By Pamela Espeland | Columnist

Many of us can remember the last live event we attended before the coming of COVID-19 and the closing of bars, restaurants and “other places of public accommodation.” Now some of us are collecting memories of our first live events after five months of lockdown and social distancing.

Have you been to Mia or the Walker? Crooners, the Chanhassen or Icehouse? A concert in someone’s yard? A movie screening in a city park?

On Saturday, we saw an actual play, live and in person, in a Highland Park backyard. The patio served as the stage. Off to one side, behind a small table with a laptop, sat stage manager Samson Perry. The audience brought their own chairs and spread out across the lawn. The play, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” was performed without an intermission by a cast of two, Kim Kivens and Laura Stearns.

This was the first play of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s 26th season, “Theater Six Feet Apart.” Its 25th was cut short by COVID. The next two productions, “Operation: Immigration” and “Musical Review,” will be virtual. The season finale, “The People’s Violin,” is being planned for the theater at the Highland Park Community Center, MJTC’s usual venue, but who knows? An off-Broadway hit by Kate Moira Ryan and Judy Gold, based on the book they wrote together, “25 Questions” is a good choice for a pandemic that has brought the arts to its knees. Kivens and Stearns are both experienced MJTC performers. The production staff is also small: Perry, director Jennie Ward and sound designer Reid Rejsa. There are no lights, costumes or sets, just two mics and a pair of chairs.

Gold, a stand-up comic, won two Emmys for her work as writer/producer for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” in the late 1990s. She knows how to balance the fiercely funny with the dead serious, the light with the dark, which are sometimes the same thing; is there really a pop-up version of “The Diary of Anne Frank”? (“Pull the tab. Alive. Pull it again. Dead.”)

Combining anecdotes from Gold’s life as “a 6’3″ kosher comedian lesbian mother of two from the Upper West Side” with responses from 50 Jewish mothers Gold and Ryan interviewed, the play looks into what makes Jewish mothers different from non-Jewish mothers.

If you’re Jewish, “25 Questions” may be more familiar than revealing. If you’re not, it may answer some of your own questions, shatter stereotypes and teach you a few things about Jewish life and culture.

MinnPost photo by John Whiting

The audience at “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.”Kivens and Stearns are comfortable with the play and each other. Kivens plays Gold and poses the questions: Do you treat your sons differently from your daughters? Do you find Judaism limiting or empowering? Have you ever experienced anti-semitism? Are you kosher? What’s your favorite Jewish mother joke? (“How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “None. I’ll sit in the dark.”)

Stearns plays all the moms. There are 18 (not 50 or even 25; for more, you’ll have to read the book), and they represent a wider variety than you might expect, especially if you’re not Jewish. They are practicing and non-practicing, Orthodox, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reform, homemakers, professionals. Some are grandmothers. One is a Holocaust survivor. One is the second daughter of Chinese immigrants who converted to Judaism because she met a man who wanted to marry someone Jewish. Her own mother never forgave her for it.

“25 Questions” isn’t Shakespeare or Ibsen or Tennessee Williams. It is “a comedy that has some substance to it, which are the types of comedies I like,” MJTC’s founder and producing artistic director Barbars Brooks said last week in an interview. More than that, given the conditions and restrictions we’re living under, it’s a chance to be lifted up and carried away, to hear someone else’s stories and, for 70 minutes, take a break from our own. And there’s the bonus of unpredictability. When you put on a play outdoors, things can happen. At opening night of “25 Questions,” a friendly dog wandered into the yard, eluded Perry and checked out a few audience members before running off. A honking vee of geese flew overhead. A rabbit hopped through. Wild turkeys made an appearance and must have decided we weren’t worth bossing around. Kivens and Stearns rolled with it all.

Seven performances remain, outdoors at public venues and private backyards. FMI and tickets ($35; purchase in advance). Social distancing is enforced and masks are mandatory.

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