It’s a world-traveled, New York-birthed theatrical classic — a tale of arrogance, family rupture and dramatic reversals. The title role has such bravura scope that actresses once vied to be its preeminent interpreter. Despite those seeming advantages, Jacob Gordin’s 1898 Yiddish-language play “Mirele Efros” — also known as “The Jewish Queen Lear” — has slipped beneath the radar in the United States of late.
Now Theater J is staging a production billed as the play’s English-language world premiere, running through April 7 at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center. Directed by Theater J’s artistic director, Adam Immerwahr, and with Valerie Leonard in the title role, “The Jewish Queen Lear” is mounted in partnership with Georgetown’s theater and performance studies program.
“The Jewish Queen Lear” is “an incredible story about generational divide” that features “one of the great female roles of all time,” Immerwahr says.
“It has high and low,” the script’s translator, eminent Yiddish-theater scholar Nahma Sandrow, says by phone from New York. “It has this story of pride and love and betrayal and loyalty, and also low comedy.”
“The Jewish Queen Lear” is the first full production from Theater J’s Yiddish Theater Lab, an initiative that launched in early 2018, a few years after Immerwahr joined the company. At the start of his tenure, he recalls, “I had been thinking a lot about where the opportunities were for Jewish theater and for Theater J.” The canon of Yiddish plays struck him as a potential gold mine.
After surging in 1870s Eastern Europe, professional Yiddish theater thrived in late 19th- and early 20th-century America, with numerous Yiddish-language companies and playhouses flourishing in New York City alone. Such famous artists as designer Boris Aronson paid his dues in Yiddish theater. Influential acting teacher Stella Adler came from a family of Yiddish-theater actors.
“Yiddish theater was one of the dominant cultural art forms” of its era, Immerwahr says.
The form lost traction following restrictive federal immigration legislation in the 1920s and waned further as assimilation cut into the language’s currency. Recently, however, there has been a general uptick in Americans’ interest in Yiddish, evidenced by a high-profile Yiddish-language “Fiddler on the Roof” now running off-Broadway, directed by Joel Grey.
Before Immerwahr’s arrival, Theater J had produced Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” and S. Anski’s “The Dybbuk” — among the genre’s best-known plays. But the company began delving more deeply into the canon with Yiddish Theater Lab readings of scripts that included Gordin’s “The Jewish King Lear” (a different work from “Mirele Efros”) and “God, Man, and Devil.”
A towering figure in Yiddish theater, the Russian-born Gordin (1853-1909) immigrated in 1891 to the United States. He set out to improve the quality of Yiddish theater, writing substantive plays whose aesthetics evoked writers like Henrik Ibsen. “He was considered a great reformer,” Sandrow says, noting that “it was only through his plays that intellectual Yiddish speakers started going to Yiddish theater.”
While working with Yiddish-theater scholars on the Lab, Immerwahr kept hearing praise for “Mirele Efros,” sometimes said to be Gordin’s masterpiece. A tale of a successful businesswoman who has a falling out with her children, the play has been hugely popular. It generated a high-profile acting rivalry when Polish actress Ester Rokhl Kaminska played the title role in the States, inviting comparison to American actress Keni Liptzin, for whom Gordin had written the play.
“Mirele Efros” was adapted for film, and the play ran on Broadway in 1967 in Yiddish. But according to Theater J’s research, it has never been given a full English-language production.
Nor has it, apparently, been published in English. Immerwahr says that he finally became “so sick and tired of everyone bugging me about ‘Mirele Efros,’ ” which he could not read, that he called Sandrow, author of “Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater,” to ask about the existence of a translation. As it happened, she had completed one — as yet unpublished — and sent it.
“It was phenomenal!” he says. “It was gripping. It was universal. It was specific, as well.” He notes, “In many ways it parallels [Shakespeare’s] ‘Lear,’ and in many ways it departs.”
The play also featured several young characters, a plus as Theater J — performing around town while its Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center home undergoes renovations — joined forces with Georgetown for the production. Georgetown students will appear in “Jewish Queen Lear,” playing Mirele Efros’s children.
The “Jewish Queen Lear” cast also includes veteran actors Tonya Beckman and Karl Kippola, among others.
En route to this production, Immerwahr says, Theater J’s exploration of Yiddish theater has gathered momentum. As news of the Yiddish Theater Lab has spread, people have reached out with suggestions of other plays worth investigating.
The initiative was “a leap of faith at the beginning,” he says, but the reaction to it has “really encouraged me to keep going.”
Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre, in the Davis Performing Arts Center, 37th and O streets NW. 202-777-3210 or theaterj.org.
Dates: March 13-April 7.