By Mara Dresner
Patriarchs Abraham and Isaac will share the stage with Biblical notables, such as Rebecca and Dena, as well as an unborn child and a cultural Jew, as Cantor Pamela Siskin’s play “The Innocent” is performed at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford on August 31 at 7 p.m.
“Selichot has always held great interest for me. I composed a service for my practicum at Hebrew Union College in my senior year,” said Siskin. “It had a dance and prose component as well as formal and modern liturgy. Selichot is such an awesome way to prepare for the High Holy Days and invites creativity. I then read ‘J.B.’ by Archibald MacLeish, at the recommendation of Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who wrote One Hundred Great Jewish Books and that made me think of Job and how human suffering is such a large perplexing piece of human existence. Whether from Biblical or modern times, we face the same heart-wrenching experiences. Can we learn from one another? Some of the cast members are isolated in their thoughts and some interact in their ‘real life’ relationships. Eventually, the entire cast is united by their humanity; at least I hope that’s what the audience and the cast members feel. There is very little music in this play, unlike my next production which is a ‘musical play.’”
Siskin first wrote the play in 2012 and it was performed for Selichot last year at Congregation Beth Israel.
She said she has done some rewriting since then.
“I constantly discussed the play with my wonderful cast and found how strongly they felt about their characters. We also had a feedback session after the first
performance and I took note of what audience members had to say. I think it has changed quite a lot from last year – less abstract and more human. It was interesting that my cast member who played Abraham last year declined to play it this year because he couldn’t bear the anger that was directed at him! That was so interesting to me. He is playing a different character this year – and nobody shouts at him. But it made me see how that sometimes I did not give the male characters as much of a chance as the female characters. Last year, it probably emerged as a ‘woman’s play.’ This year I hope I have rounded the characters a little more,” she said.
“We have all worked together on several projects over the years,” said Siskin, noting that cast members are all congregants and range in age from 14 to 89. “The Spiritual Theater Group started with the production of Rae Tattenbaum’s Darkness Descends written for the 71st anniversary of the Holocaust.”
The group’s next production will be Siskin’s musical “Never Let It Happen,” which will be performed on Saturday, Nov. 9, in commemoration of Kristallnacht.
Dr. Karen Beyard is reprising her role from last year in “The Innocent.”
“I play Dianna, the rabbi’s estranged – and very angry – wife. She surprises him, and perhaps herself, by turning up at the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, but she is far from ready to let go of grief, anger and blame for the terrible loss her family has suffered,” she explained. “While there are not a lot of lines, Dianna’s words are like punches to the gut. I feel them even more this year because I have become invested in her character. I want her to move through her emotions and to find her way back to God. At the end of our play I want to believe – and I hope the audience will too – that she is now ready to move forward.”
She said it’s an appropriate time of year to perform the play.
“In one way or another, every character in the play, Biblical or modern, is not yet ready. Most yearn for, but are not quite sure how to attain, a meaningful relationship with G-d. They feel God near, but out of reach, blamed for human failings, and unknowable. The work of the characters in the play is a metaphor for the work we must all do to prepare for the holidays and become ready to taste the sweetness of a New Year. In our spiritual and daily lives, there is much to let go of, forgiveness to ask, and forgiveness to give,” said Beyard.
Beth Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Michael Pincus, agreed. “It draws upon key texts of the High Holiday season and invites us to prepare for these holy days by inviting us to think about our own relationships through the prism of this sacred drama.”
Siskin hopes that the audience will connect to the play and that it will make them think.
“[I hope] that each person questions themselves as to their belief or non-belief in G-d, any G-d,” she said. “Above all, I would like everyone to leave with a strong emotion – and renewed vows for the coming year.”
Congregation’s Beth Israel’s Spiritual Theater Group will present “The Innocent,” written and directed by Cantor Pamela Siskin, on Saturday, August 31. The evening begins with “a talk given by Rabbi Michael Pincus on “What Purpose Selichot?” followed by a musical meditation with Natasha Ulyanovsky at 7:15 p.m., and the performance of “The Innocent” at 7:30 p.m. Refreshments and an open discussion will follow the performance. Beth Israel is located at 701 Farmington Ave in West Hartford. Admission is free. For information call (860) 233-8215.
Mara Dresner is an award-winning freelance writer living in Rocky Hill.