THEATER REVIEW

Theater: 'Mikveh' by Hadar Galron, reviewed by Peter Marks

"Mikveh": Rachel Condliffe, Carla Briscoe, Tonya Beckman Ross and Sarah Marshall in Hadar Galron's play, at Theater J.
"Mikveh": Rachel Condliffe, Carla Briscoe, Tonya Beckman Ross and Sarah Marshall in Hadar Galron's play, at Theater J. (Stan Barouh)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It can occur at a bus stop or in a bar or in a jury room packed with angry men. A disparate array of types is gathered in a public space, and something ignites: the theater of clashing personalities. In the case of Theater J's transparently calculated "Mikveh," this familiar formula is applied to a communal bath for Orthodox Jewish women in an ultra-religious Israeli enclave.

Although the locale is exotic -- a haven of ritual purification whose doors are closed to men and outsiders -- the results are pretty much what you might imagine. Hadar Galron's play, a hit in Israel, conforms to the recipe for this theatrical staple, turning the bath, or mikveh, into a forum for the airing of perspectives in a tradition-bound community, a society that the playwright suggests seeks to silence women who think for themselves.

The drama by the British-Israeli writer, presented for the first time in English, is riddled with plot mechanics far too obvious: Ladies, don't leave that pool of water unattended! (A facet of set designer Kinereth Kisch's excellent interior of the mikveh, the pool is made to shimmer in the light behind a scrim.) And in the end, eager to tie things up, the dramatist hurries these women of wildly divergent opinions into a chorus of unconvincing solidarity.

"Mikveh" nevertheless has its consolations, giving voices to women whom a theatergoer rarely has occasion to hear. It's instructive, watching as the operations of the bath unfold and the characters reveal their varied motivations for practicing the rite, a cleansing timed to occur in a set period after a woman's menstrual cycle.

In this insular environment, the women reveal their attitudes about men, duty and sex. You could plot the points of view on a graph. At one extreme are the imperious Hindi (Kim Schraf) and hidebound Shoshana (Sarah Marshall), the latter the mikveh's senior attendant, who runs the place with a prison matron's adherence to rules. At the other end of the spectrum is the libertine Miki (Tonya Beckman Ross) -- a participant only because her husband won't sleep with her unless she partakes of the ritual bath-- and the show's heroine, Shira (Lise Bruneau), the new attendant from outside the community who senses the dangerous byproducts of unchecked male oppression.

The cracks in the pious facade show with "Mikveh's" outline of each progressive monthly visit. The forlorn Tehila (Amal Saade), for example, a new bride in an arranged marriage, grows more agitated as the depth of her entrapment becomes clearer to her. Even more central to the plot is the plight of Chedva (Carla Briscoe), who enters the mikveh with her traumatized daughter (Rachel Condliffe) and a raw wound under her eye, evidence of the routine brutality of her husband, a community leader.

In an effort to tone down the soapier aspects of the story -- the women hide their shames, along with their hair -- director Shirley Serotsky treats the material with reverent understatement. Only Ross's exhibitionist Miki is allowed to display any joie de vivre. The other polished cast members, from Marshall to Bruneau, go through the play's sober machinations with a requisite air of reserve.

The interludes in which the actresses slide into the water to reenact the ritual are some of the production's most engrossing. Perhaps that's because it is only in these moments that the artifice fully drops away and "Mikveh" becomes a real immersion.

marksp@washpost.com

Mikveh

By Hadar Galron. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Set, Kinereth Kisch; lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, Deb Sivigny; sound, Veronika Vorel. With Helen Pafumi. About 2 hours 25 minutes. Through June 5 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com or call 800-494-8497.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company