Can two men deeply devoted to God profane biblical law and still be worthy of love and respect? That's the question running like a fault line beneath "Passing the Love of Women," an evocatively designed and directed new play receiving its English-language premiere at Theater J.
You have very likely seen this kind of play about doomed, forbidden love before, but probably not played out in a 19th-century East European Jewish village. Intensely atmospheric and detailed, the production summons a world heavy with unforgiving customs and rituals. However, the story is on uncertain ground.
"Passing the Love of Women" is based on "Two," a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Israeli playwright Motti Lerner and Singer's son, Israel Zamir, have adapted the story, and Hanan Snir has provided "additional material adapted for the stage," according to the program. The retitled result is an uneven but intriguing amalgam.
Azriel (David Covington) and Ziesl (Karl Miller) are two young Talmudic scholars in Frampol, Poland, where Singer set many of his tales. But as we -- and they -- soon discover, they share more than a love of the Torah. Ziesl's arranged marriage sends angry and jealous Azriel fleeing the village; after his wedding night, Ziesl realizes where his true love lies and abandons his bride to go after Azriel. Reunited, they acknowledge their feelings, return, and take a room together in a boardinghouse on the far edge of town.
Oh, one other thing: Since they want to live together in a time and place where two men their age can't do so without drawing suspicion and disgust, Ziesl dresses as a woman. The usual kind of cross-dressing antics -- spurning the advances of a randy old landlord, feeling a sudden desire to clean and sew -- ensue.
But under the laughs, real conflict -- and pain -- exist. Azriel and Ziesl hate having to hide their love from a disapproving society. More to the point, the devout Ziesl, forced to maintain the charade at all times, suffers deeply because Jewish tradition forbids women to study the Torah. And ultimately, a narrow, unbending interpretation of that tradition bears down on Azriel and Ziesl, crushing them and almost everyone around them.
"Two," omitted from many of the numerous short story collections Singer published, is not one of the Nobel laureate's strongest tales. The drama lies in the conflict Azriel and Ziesl must endure between their love of God's word and their love for each other, which, to them and everyone else, irreconcilably violates God's word. But "Passing the Love of Women" barely mines that conflict, focusing more on the simple question of how long before the charade is found out.
Singer's world, however, takes memorable shape on Daniel Conway's lyrical set, which melds Jewish symbolism with the harsh realities of a shtetl, circa 1850. Kate Turner-Walker's costumes, from the lavish to the ascetic, underscore an era as well as characters. As Ziesl, Miller wears some of the dresses with just the right mix of shame and resignation in a sharp performance suggesting maturity beyond his youth. Covington, his performance mannered and fussy at times, still makes Azriel a sympathetic, sad figure.
Mitchell Hebert -- as Ziesl's father, a rabbi -- is spot-on as a man torn between his love for his sinning son and his God. As Ziesl's mother, Caren Anton is winningly poised between sweetly mothering and mercilessly smothering. In fact, director Daniel De Raey has impressively balanced all the performances on the terrain of a new play that isn't quite settled.
Passing the Love of Women, by Motti Lerner and Israel Zamir, based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, with additional material adapted for the stage by Hanan Snir. Directed by Daniel De Raey. Lighting by Dan Covey; sound, Mark Anduss. With Elizabeth Jernigan, Amy Montminy, Grady Weatherford, Joel Snyder, Martha Karl and Tim Getman. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through June 6 at Theater J. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.