The most thrilling part of “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” happens before the play starts, when actor Laura Stearns tells the audience, “We’re all together in one space, and it’s live theater.”
When she said that Sunday at Harriet Island’s Target Stage in St. Paul, it had been more than five months since I’d seen my last in-person play (“Interstate” at Mixed Blood Theatre), so those words were a timely reminder how lucky we are that Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has jumped over, or run around, a bunch of hurdles to make live theater happen. Outdoors, masked, physically distant, hand sanitizer available at a moment’s notice — but together.
“25 Questions” is a smart choice because of its presentational style and small cast: Kim Kivens, playing a version of comedian Judy Gold, who asks the series of questions that give Kate Moira Ryan and Gold’s play its title; and Stearns, playing a variety of unnamed Jewish mothers, one of whom may also be Gold. “25 Questions” doesn’t ask us to believe in the actors’ transformation into other people the way a play such as Lisa Kron’s similarly themed “Well” might — we’re supposed to be aware that we’re watching actors slide in and out of these characters — but it does transport us with the stories they tell.
Mostly, they’re pretty light, along the lines of Kivens’ advice about keeping kosher: “You can’t have a cheeseburger. Or, I mean, you can have a cheeseburger but you’ll go to hell. And it’s totally worth it.” Or when she describes Judy Blume’s oeuvre as “the Jewish equivalent of the goyishe ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books.” There are, of course, quite a few Jewish mother jokes; interestingly, as Kivens lists the comedians who popularized them, you may note that all of them are dudes.
“25 Questions” has a more nuanced approach to Jewish mothers, informed by the fact that Jewish mothers are also Jewish daughters. “In Judaism, anything happy has to include a little misery,” Kivens tells us, a dichotomy that helps the show — and the versatile actors — navigate the material’s tonal shifts. There’s light in the darkness of jokes about Anne Frank, for instance, and in an idea that occupies the final portion of the show: mothers whose children die or, because they left the faith, are dead to them.
These are not subjects you expect to find in a play in a busy park where bicyclists whiz by (“25 Questions” is also being performed in Twin Cities yards), but it works because it has such empathetic humor and because the performers commit to it with such open hearts.
It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not even Neil Simon. But it is what audiences and theatermakers are talking about when they discuss missing live theater these past months: the chance to exchange some energy, to spend time together in a (wide open) space, to connect. And, maybe, when this particular play is done, to go home and call your mom.
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