August 18, 2020
Laura Stearns and Kim Kivens
Photo by Sarah Whiting
Live theater is back in the Twin Cities! At least, it is here for a very limited run at a variety of outdoor venues with limited seating. For the first time since March 13 of this year, I had the joy of sitting among an audience—albeit, masked and six feet away apart from one another—facing a stage and soaking in the rarified air that is the result of actors and audience, in one space and time, connecting. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is the producer, and the show is Judy Gold's 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.
Judy Gold describes herself as a 6'3" lesbian Jewish comedian, though her website adds that she is also an actress, playwright, and television writer, having won a pair of Daytime Emmy Awards for writing and producing "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." She and co-playwright Kate Moira Ryan wrote 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother as a one-woman show based on interviews they conducted with over fifty Jewish mothers in the United States.
Gold herself first performed the play in 2006 Off-Broadway, where it was greeted with warm reviews and a successful run. She has brought the show to audiences in such locales as Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Palm Springs. Gold always performed it as a solo piece, the published edition states that female cast consists of 1-21 actors, alluding to the multiple maternal characters that respond to the questions referenced in the play's title.
Director Jennie Ward smartly stages the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production with two actors: Kim Kivens takes on the role of Judy, conducting interviews of Jewish mothers of all stripes of womanhood—gay, straight, married divorced, young, elderly—and Judaism, running the gamut from Orthodox to non-practicing, with all shades in between. Laura Stearns plays that spectrum of Jewish moms as they respond to the interviews, and most especially Judy's own mother.
The play is part memoir, as the playwright offers remembrances, from her childhood into adulthood, of her specific Jewish mother who browbeat her, criticized her, piled on guilt, goaded her with high expectations, and absolutely loved her. That Judy's mother looks at life through dark-colored glasses is made clear early on when Judy tells us that the first book her mother read to her was not "Little " or "Goodnight Moon," but the pop-up version of "The Diary of Anne Frank," This kind of gallows humor is liberally laced through the 70-minute show, along with hefty servings of sarcasm and bawdiness.
In addition to the personal story that includes coming out to her mother, taking up with her longtime partner, and becoming the parent of two children, Gold and Ryan offer social commentaries on the responses made by these disparate women to such questions as "What makes a Jewish mother different?," "What is the best piece of advice your mother gave you?," "What is the hardest thing you ever had to do as a mother?," "Who is your favorite woman in the bible?," and "How has the holocaust affected you?." The respondent to that last question is a concentration camp survivor, and her story is chilling and, in its way, inspiring.
The two actors, both highly accomplished, here play with an informality that is well suited both to the piece and the setting. The material makes the good-natured kibitzing that slips into their performances feel completely natural, while the outdoor setting makes pauses to acknowledge unexpected occurrences, such as a dog wandering through the audience (and later a wild turkey, later still a large flock of geese honking as they flew overhead in perfect V-formation) totally appropriate.
None of this diminishes the sturdiness of Stearns' and Kivens' performances, with Kivens adopting the wiseacre persona of Judy who is, after all, a stand-up comedian, while Stearns takes on a wide array of roles, from rip-roaring funny to the poignancy of that camp survivor, adroitly flashing in and out of each those characters, using her voice and posture to create complete portraits in a heartbeat. Ward's direction smoothly guides transitions between narratives, characters and actors, while allowing for the loose give and take the event and setting warrants.
Production-wise, there is not much to say about this staging. The two actors are attired in stylish garb suitable for a patio party, outfits that could easily come from their respective closets. The show begins and ends while it is light outside, so no additional lighting is needed, and there is no stage set other than the rear wall of the home owned by the generous host whose backyard held the event, one of five locations used for ten performances. Reid Rejsa handles sound design, which consists of a handheld mic for each of the actors, and Samson Perry serves as stage manager, earning props for corralling that stray dog from the yard, though he was helpless to do anything about the geese.
I make no claim that 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother is a great play, nor that this staging is in itself remarkable. It is consistently entertaining, raising a few raucous laughs and a great many gentle ones. It also gives testimony to the hardship, pain, and joy of being a mother—Jewish and otherwise. There are enough universal truths in the tropes attributed to the archetypal "Jewish mother" to make this show accessible to anyone who has been or had a mother. Go and enjoy it, with modest expectations topped off with an especially strong performance by Laura Stearns.
What will ultimately make this an unforgettable theater event is its very existence in the middle of the long coronavirus pandemic. Many of our theaters and artists are inventively using remote delivery to stay connected with audiences, from such inspiring commentary on our fraught times as Illusion Theatre's In This Moment to laughter-provoking entertainment such as Park Square's Riddle Puzzle Plot by Jeffrey Hatcher, a mystery-comedy actually taking place on a Zoom call during a pandemic. But nothing beats the thrill of live theater, with audience, players, and stage crew assembled together, and the release of being able to applaud in gratitude for their efforts. Thanks to Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's ambition, that delight is briefly available to us.
Twenty Five Questions for a Jewish Mother continues through August 30, 2020. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting their production outdoors at various Twin Cities locations. Tickets: $35.00. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and will not be sold at the performance site. Audience members must wear a mask throughout the performance, and are advised to bring a folding chair or blanket for lawn seating. For performance schedule and tickets call 651-647-4315 or visit mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwrights: Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan; Director: Jennie Ward; Sound Design (Reid Rejsa), Stage Manager: Samson Perry.
Cast: Kim Kivens (Daughter), Laura Stearns (Mother)
Reviewed by Arty Dorman