Talk about your long-suffering mothers. The rich and powerful title figure in “The Jewish Queen Lear” gets steamrolled by her kids but pops back up for more abuse. And does she bellow against the storm? Not so much. She loves too much.
A later generation might call this enabling, but earlier eras knew Jacob Gordin’s popular late-19th century Yiddish drama as “Mirele Efros,” the name of the matriarch in this doomed family. As part of artistic director Adam Immerwahr’s new Yiddish Theater Lab, Theater J is debuting Nahma Sandrow’s English translation, and though it’s an intriguing exercise, it’s definitely academic. The characters are stiff, and the plotting and lamentations as blunt as Greek tragedy. The villainy of Mirele Efros’s mean, greedy sons and daughter-in-law draws awkward laughs near the end.
The venture wraps up Theater J’s season at four venues while the troupe’s base — the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center — completes renovations. “The Jewish Queen Lear” is at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, and the partnership extends to the cast, with student actors filling in youthful roles. Their raw petulance serves Gordin’s callow figures, but it’s in the stately Mirele Efros and her small inner circle that you sense the sentimental appeal this drama must have had with audiences once upon a time.
Valerie Leonard is imperious and elegant as the widow Mirele Efros, looking like a figure from a bygone era in costume designer Ivania Stack’s long, layered skirts. The viper of a daughter-in-law wears jeans — at one point pizza boxes litter a couch in the vast teal drawing room dominated by a portrait of the long-dead patriarch, to give you an idea of the slight time warp — and one of Mirele Efros’s sons wears expensive-looking, cartoonish sweaters underlining what a vain buffoon he is.
Leonard is the glue the show needs, gliding through the younger generation’s noise, threatening wrath with a thump of her scepter-like cane but eventually biting her tongue, suffering indignities with a few words of wisdom that keep the audience firmly on her side. Shakespeare this ain’t: If Mirele Efros is Queen Lear, it’s without the same thundering self-destruction and tragic need to see better. She is much, much more sinned against than sinning.
Even without bloody blindings and murders, the children are true to form, irrationally demanding that Mirele Efros hand them her estate, banishing her thronelike easy chair and humiliating her small staff. Immerwahr elicits wonderful performances from the older generation here: It takes a particular kind of tact to act this high-relief drama properly, and Frank X (as Mirele Efros’s loyal business manager) and Sue Jin Song (as her loyal maidservant) supply simplicity and power as they witness the household’s pointless cruelty. At least in spurts, their perplexed dignity breathes life into the experiment.
The Jewish Queen Lear, by Jacob Gordin, translated by Nahma Sandrow. Directed by Adam Immerwahr. Scenic design, Andrew R. Cohen; lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design, Veronica J. Lancaster; music director, James Khoury. With Karl Kippola, Tonya Beckman, Christopher Warren, Charlie Trepany, Healy Knight, Shane Wall, Alana Dodds Sharp, Benjamin Eneman, K.J. Moran, Kylie Navarro, Kate Oelkers and Emma Stern. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Through April 7 at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre, in the Davis Performing Arts Center, 37th and O streets NW. $34-$64. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org .