Review by Ann Firestone Ungar
Rachel Calof is a solo drama based on a Yiddish memoir, Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. The play is a chamber piece, intimate yet large, ambitious to tell the life story of a resourceful and fine woman whose life’s hard, but through its lessons she triumphs. Rachel is Jewish, but she could be every woman who, with grit, humor and dignity manages to survive and thrive.
Rachel, played by Kate Fuglei, tells the story of her brave adventure crossing the ocean as a picture bride from Russia to New York to North Dakota in 1894 to marry a man she had never met. She develops a relationship with her fiancée, realizing his strengths and his weaknesses. She agrees to go with him to the plains to become a homesteader, and lives for years in squalor in a tiny one-room shack with his large family and their animals. She endures his overbearing mother who is almost as difficult as the force of unforgiving nature with its deep winters and sudden, destructive storms. As spiritually fine as Rachel is, the mother-in-law uses religious law to control her daughter-in-law in a nasty, superstitious manner.
At the nadir of her early years on the plains Rachel makes a candle, thus bringing light into what was the family’s circumscribed existence as creatures of the rising and the setting of the sun. The biblical reference from Genesis is clear: the first thing God created was light, and from that all we know of as the universe came into being. Rachel is the daughter of a Kohen, a descendent Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites, and Moses’s brother. This historical memory seems to give her strength to endure and create private space through which she finds solutions to the problems which she faces.
After many years, Rachel and her husband gain land, raise nine children and eventually move to St. Paul, where they’re able to buy a proper house in 1930. Her husband pursues his interest in politics, having learned the lesson of the power of political associations on the plains. But Rachel tells us that he talks a lot at these political meetings, only to remain silent at home. As a result she has decided to leave him, to go to Seattle to be with her grandchildren, her reward after decades of endurance.
Rachel Calof is a play with music. It’s not distinguished music, but it’s serviceable, played by Ross Källing. This isn’t Kurt Weill or Sondheim. It’s largely composed in minor keys, at first with an Eastern European, Yiddish flavor, not particularly memorable although nicely sung by Ms. Fuglei.
Ms. Fuglei successfully portrays Rachel as she must be: strong, humorous, defiant yet tender, and deeply intelligent. Remember: this play is based on her memoir. Rachel wrote her life’s story which her family discovered after her death, and it comes to us here in New York City as part of The Sixth Annual United Solo Theatre Festival. Ms. Fuglei also plays Rachel’s husband and mother-in-law convincingly.
Although we know the story of our pioneers through books, movies and TV, Rachel Calof adds a bit more to our knowledge of what women endured, and perhaps still do as migrants on different continents even today.
RACHEL CALOF – A MEMOIR WITH MUSIC – based on the book Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains by Rachel Calof, adapted by Ken LaZebnik; original music and lyrics by Leslie Steinweiss; directed by Ellen S. Pressman
WITH: Kate Fuglei (Rachel Calof)
Ross Källing (Pianist and additional arrangements), Anthony Mark Cruz (stage manager).
Presented as part of The United Solo Festival, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY. For tickets contact www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200; through November 21, 2105. See also www.rachelcarlof.com; Running time: 1 hour.