A ritual is a device by which we give ourselves over to a set of predetermined behaviors, thus eliminating any possibility of choice or decision. At its best, it allows us to release our egos, and rest our minds in the cradle of God’s hands. It is always, though, a form of social control.
This is true when the ritual is high mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and when it is the morning chant at an ashram on the plains of India, and even when it is in a venue as cheery and modern as a locker room, and administered by someone as experienced and friendly as Shoshana (Sarah Marshall). This is the mikveh, which is (among other things) a place where Orthodox women go to ritually cleanse themselves after menstruation, and reinforce the social bonds of Orthodox Judaism – including, in Hadar Galron’s take, forced marriage, forced childbirth and wife-beating.
I do not know if this colossal indictment of Orthodox society is just or not, but it is dramatically compelling. Galron won a “production of the year” award in 2004 in Israel, and the dramatic bones of the piece are solid, if not entirely polished. Shira (Lise Bruneau) has joined the mikveh as an assistant after having been fired from her previous place of employment because her penchant for ferreting out uncomfortable truths made everyone…uncomfortable. She starts down the same path almost immediately at the mikveh, by drawing attention to facts which have previously escaped Shoshana’s “don’t ask…don’t tell” approach to information.
The most important of these facts is that Chedva (Carla Briscoe) is getting the hell kicked out of her by her husband, an up-and-coming Israeli politician – and that the evidence of his beatings is revealed when she stands naked in the mikveh bath (there is brief nudity in this play). The net effect of this scandalous, (and illegal, under halacha, the Jewish law) behavior is that Chedva’s daughter Ellishiva (Rachel Condliffe) is rendered an elective mute. Chedva is also mute, in a more conventional way, insisting that her multiple injuries are due to her propensity for falling down stairs. Shira – like the audience – knows the truth, and her struggle to shine a light on this brutality in the face of the other women’s impulse to cover it up is the dramatic weight of the play.
Shira’s outsider ways rankle the mikveh regulars, and in particular the acid-tongued, self-regarding Hindi (Kimberly Schraf) and the amusing nincompoop Esti (Helen Pafumi). Hindi and Esti together represent the community’s conspiracy of silence, and the way women – and victims generally – collaborate in their own oppression. They, even more than Shoshana, are sensitive to Shira’s challenge to Shoshana’s authority – and to its consequence, noting that Chedva’s brutal husband is not only Shoshana’s boss but the man who found Shira her job at the mikveh. They want nothing less than Shira’s removal, and a restoration of the uneasy peace which existed before she came to the place.
The first Act is stuffed – perhaps overstuffed – with characters and their dilemmas. Shira spends her nights at the mikveh, for reasons which are not clear until near the end of the Act. A young bride-to-be, Tehila (Amai Saade), struggles to find a way out of the marriage her parents have arranged for her. Shira’s predecessor dies under mysterious circumstances. Miki (Tonya Beckman Ross), a popular singer, agrees to undergo the mikveh ceremony because her husband has recently converted to Orthodoxy and will not have sex with her unless she submits to the ceremony. Even Shoshana seems fraught with demons, as her daughter, for reasons not clear at the outset, seeks secret communication with her.
Things become clearer in Act two, in which Chedva can no longer hide her secret, and the other women come to understand the moral and emotional consequences of their own cover-up. In America (Theater J is giving the first English-language production of the play), it may be difficult to understand the coercive power of social control, as we tend to resolve our conflicts by firing up our immense judiciary system, or else through the vigorous exercise of our Second-Amendment rights. But in the Israeli Orthodox culture, as in most of the rest of the world, the desire to please society – tradition, if you will – is a powerful force, and to see the mikveh participants calculate the cost of tradition to their lives is an exercise in profound sadness. When even Hindi reveals her (somewhat implausible) secret, and what it cost her, the mikveh participants resolve to stand firm against the “Modesty Patrol”, which wants to commit Chedva, now an accuser, to a mental institution.
This is an exciting story, told in an exciting way…and yet. And yet. Most of the subplots misfire. An offstage character, who, because the Rabbi has condemned contraceptives, had become pregnant though it gravely risked her health, commits suicide – apparently not noticing that suicide is an even greater risk to her health. A character has an asthma attack in order to advance the plot, but to that point we have had no clue that she suffered from a breathing disorder. Shoshana secretly subsidizes her daughter, who has been excommunicated from the community for some unspecified crime, but eventually her husband will notice the drain on the family fisc, and have something to say. Miki, who is a delightful and well-drawn character (and right in Ross’ wheelhouse; she is magnificent in this role), nonetheless does not advance the story in any significant way. Worst of all, Tehelia is almost wholly irrelevant to the plot; her dilemma – her husband is loving and attractive, but she pines for a man she barely met – is not compelling, given the circumstances of the story as a whole. (A document called “Mikvelongsynopsis 13508-1” turned up in response to my Google search. It gives a much different plot, in which Tehelia’s crisis is more central, to the story). What’s more, the resolution of Tehelia’s dilemma undercuts the play’s resolution, which is difficult to believe in any event.
Shirley Serotsky’s cast gives the play every chance to succeed, and the fact that it does, on balance, is hugely due to the performances. Of course, no play which features the immensely gifted Marshall can go far wrong. Here she plays a character immediately recognizable – the very capable functionary, called upon to make decisions beyond her usual scope – by hitting all the grace notes. Bruneau, too, finds Shira’s grace and brings it forward, thus turning a character who could be shrill and preachy into a genuine heroine. All of the performances are at least convincing and several of them – Pafumi and Ross especially – are also highly engaging. Kinereth Kisch’s beautifully-designed set – the ritual bath is behind a scrim, and it becomes visible through Dan Covey’s lighting design – works here, as it must have worked in the original Israeli production.
Notwithstanding its award, Mikveh the play has the feel of a work in progress, but the production has all cylinders firing.
By Hadar Galron
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Mikveh runs through June 6, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.