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One by one 11 women spanning three generations quietly enter the theater. When each reaches the stage, she takes a seat and looks out at the audience with no hint of emotion. There is nothing to distinguish them from the dozens of women staring back at them from the audience.
But as a rabbi’s voice is heard describing the rules that women under Orthodox Jewish law must follow, the 11 stand up and silently, respectfully shed their modern-day garments and assume the modest coverings of a strict Haredi community. And once the transformation is complete, the audience is transported to Jerusalem and the home of Yankele Sheinhoff, a much-respected rabbi and scholar, where a heated argument is heard offstage. His longtime wife Chana then emerges with a bloody nose, and frantically storms out of the house.
Two years later she returns, armed with a police escort and a rabbinical court order that grants her permission to visit the 12 children she abandoned.
The document proves worthless, however; most of the children have been removed from the apartment. So the besieged mother pleads her case to the female relatives and friends she finds waiting for her in the apartment. “You judge me,” she both begs and commands, and with the arrival of a tenth woman – her supposed lover – a “women’s court” is formed to do just that.
But the deck has been stacked against her.
In her powerful and often emotional drama “Women’s Minyan,” now playing at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, novelist and playwright Naomi Ragen explores the strict rules that govern the lives of Orthodox Jewish women. But more importantly, she sheds light on the subject of domestic abuse in a close-knit, religious community that prefers to keep its dirty laundry hidden.
Ragen’s script is at its best when it details the many layers of subterfuge embarked upon by both the rabbis and the family to demonize Chana and erase her from their midst. And while there’s little time to fully develop each of her many characters, most are given brief moments that allow the audience into their hearts and souls.
But the script falls somewhat short in two areas.
Positive images of men are rare, and marriage is depicted mostly as an unhappy state.
One must also question the play’s second act climactic shift: The women only acquiesce after they learn of Yankele’s complete history of abuse and infidelity; weren’t Chana’s own tragic experiences enough to convince the minyan?
Excellent performances by director Shauna Kanter’s superb cast ARE convincing, however.
Although too young and svelte to be a mother of 12, Inga Wilson immediately erases the discrepancy with an honest and heart-wrenching portrayal of a determined woman who will do whatever is necessary to regain access to her children.
Especially fine support is offered by Henrietta Hermelin as Chana’s mother and Yolanda Fleischer as mother-in-law Goldie.
Moving such a large cast about the JET stage couldn’t have been easy for director Kanter, and for the most part, she succeeds. But certain traffic patterns seemed unexpectedly congested on opening night, and a few scenes in which an actor downstage totally blocked from view another delivering lines upstage were somewhat irritating.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sun., through April 13. Tickets: $29-$39. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org