Review: MIKVEH

by Lynn on April 21, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Greenwin Theatre, in the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

 Written by Hadar Galron

Directed by Liza Balkan

Set and projections by Steve Lucas

Lighting by Davida Tkach

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound and composition by Keith Thomas

Cast: Jessica Greenberg

Brittany Kay

Rosa Labordé

Niki Landau

Maria Ricossa

Sadie Seaton

Alice Snaden

Theresa Tova

A thoughtful, sensitive production of a play that deals with troubling issues but veers towards soap opera instead of digging deeper into the concerns.

 The Story. Mikveh is  written by Hadar Galron who was born in London, England, and then moved to Israel with her family when she was 13. She was raised in the orthodox Jewish traditions.

The play takes place in Jerusalem in a mikveh, a place where orthodox Jewish women come for a ritual bath or cleansing after their period and before their wedding. Much is made about following the strict rules and regulations of the tradition of the mikveh.

Shoshona is the mikveh supervisor who oversees the women taking ritualistic cleansing ensuring they follow the procedures.

We hear the stories of the various women. Shoshona is secretly seeing and supporting her daughter, an artist, who has left the orthodox life. She hides this information from her husband who would not tolerate such a betrayal of the Jewish orthodox tradition.

There is Estie who revels in the tradition to be pure for her husband. There is Hindi, a stylish woman and gossip who comes every month and has a secret. There is Chedva who is being beaten by her politician husband and no one says a word because it’s not their business. Her daughter Elisheva is a young girl who does not speak ever since she saw her mother being beaten by her father. Elisheva embraces everybody at the mikvah. Tehila is an innocent going into an arranged marriage and she’s terrified because no one will tell her what to expect. And there is Shira, Shoshona’s assistant, a feisty woman not of that community who is not afraid to speak up when things are not right. Shira also has her own secrets as do they all.

The Production. Steve Lucas has designed a set that is both the waiting room of the mikveh and the mikveh (ritual bath) itself. The locked door to the mikveh is just off right.

A woman rings the bell and Shoshona (Theresa Tova) comes and opens it. The locked door is to ensure the women have privacy in this ‘holy’ time. Once inside the door there are chairs and lockers in the main room with, a table and phone a bit down from the chairs for the mikveh supervisor to take appointments.

Above the chairs is a square section that is covered by a heavy curtain. When the scenes are in the mikveh itself, the curtain raises to reveal a platform, a door at the back of that, for the women to enter, and the pool of pure water for the ritual cleansing. The women enter in white terry cloth robes, disrobe in discrete lighting by David Tkach, then climb into the mikveh and submerge themselves seven times.  Shoshona oversees that the rules of the ritual are followed scrupulously. When the scenes in the mikveh are finished, the curtain is lowered over the square. Sometimes a projection of water and submerging are projected on the curtain.

At the beginning of the production the curtain rises and we are right in the mikveh. Shoshonah  the mikveh supervisor, is guiding Estie (Jessica Greenberg) in her submersion (seven times). When Estie is ready to come out of the pool Shoshona is ready with a towel stretched out in such a way that we don’t see the naked Estie until she is discretely wrapped in the towel.

Director Liza Balkan’s sensitivity in directing this play is palpable. There is respect for the actor in the most intimate of scenes when they must be naked and submerged. Balkan knows the intricacies of establishing relationships and characterization when women have secrets from each other.

 There are projections of quotes from the Torah etc. about how a man is not complete without a wife and a woman’s role is to be a wife.

There is the whole notion of having children as a woman’s duty. Estie has recently given birth to her sixth child. She can hardly wait to rush home to her husband after her mikveh. There are those lines in Hadar Galron’s text that a woman must be ritually cleansed in order to have sex with her husband after her period.

The dialogue is peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew but one gets the sense of the meanings from the English dialogue.

Act I introduces the women involved, their stories and secrets. Act II develops the characters, expands on the stories and ramps up the tension. Matters are getting more dangerous regarding Chedva and her brute of a husband to the extent that Shira will not allow Shoshona or the others to ignore that they are complicit when they do nothing.

Theresa Tova plays Shoshona as if the weight of the world is on her shoulders because in a way it is—she is responsible for ensuring everything is perfect and pure according to the traditions and laws of Orthodox Judaism. She frets and worries about her own family, tending to her estranged daughter’s needs without telling her husband. Tova plays Shoshona a “mother-hen” type who is concerned about the women in her care insofar as the tradition is concerned. But when matters are fraught and a stand must be taken, Shoshona weakens and backs away from her responsibility as a human being.

Rosa Labordé is terrific as Shira, the forthright woman who is not afraid to stand up to Shoshona and the whole orthodox sect in order to be humane and true.

And I really liked the work of Alice Snaden as Tehila, the terrified young bride. She is timid, obviously troubled, desperate to put on a happy front, and failing. As played by Jessica Greenberg, Estie is a giddy devoted wife, gossipy, and seemingly a woman without depth. Estie does not have any concern that her gossip could be hurtful. Greenberg gives her a girlish charm.

Hindi, is played with style and sophistication by Maria Ricossa. You ache for the battered Chedva because Niki Landau plays her with an obvious need to hide the truth. She just wants the attention to go away.

Finally matters escalate and there is a clash of wills between the rule of Orthodox Jewish law and the larger issue of being a decent human being, adhering to a more encompassing law, personal integrity and a moral code of ethics. Shira manages to urge and rouse the women to ignore the centuries old orthodox laws and act as individual women.

I don’t believe it. A woman in front of me leaned over to her husband and said, “soap opera.”  Amen.  All of a sudden the truth comes out at the end. Women rise up and stand their ground.  I found the conclusion too neat and not earned.  And some of the conclusions can be seen a mile off.  At the end of the day I found the production much better than the play.

Comment. Mikveh certainly deals with some pretty sensitive issues in light of how intensely contained and secret  life is in Orthodox Jewry. Every aspect of living is dictated by the centuries old rules and regulation in the Torah. Modern life, feminism, individuality are not considered from the context of these women.

Everyone there knows that Chedva’s husband had been beating her for years but did nothing because as Shoshona, says it’s between a husband and wife.  Hadar Galron has provided a foil for Shoshona’s blinkered way of thinking in Shira who realizes human decency and modern law outweighs any archaic law governing the rights of husbands over wives.

 To a woman not of the orthodox sect, a lot of it is cringe worthy. I can appreciate that you have the character of Shirah who stands up and insists that someone interfere and say that a husband does not have the right to beat up his wife or threaten his child. Or that someone has to help a terrified bride if no one else will.

But the ending, suggesting a shift in thinking just does not ring true with this centuries old orthodox philosophy, ritual and form of Judaism. It’s not earned. While almost every woman in the play is unhappy, one does not get the sense that Galron has written her characters deeply enough to come to the conclusion to ‘revolt.’

I found the selection of Mikveh so odd a choice since it is obviously not a very supportive look into the Orthodox world.  And certainly it’s an odd choice when one considers that the play Yichud was chosen and cancelled several years before by The Harold Green Jewish Theatre because it was allegedly deemed critical of the Orthodox Jewry, a notion that was not true to anyone who actually saw the play.

Presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre.

Opened: April 19, 2018.

Closes: May 6, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes (approx).


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