Backstage with ‘The Sisters Rosenzweig’

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(Host intro) Rutland is celebrating the addition of a new professional theater company, The Actor’s Rep.

The company’s current production is also serving as a tribute to playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who passed away only three weeks ago. VPR’s Neal Charnoff goes Backstage with The Sister’s Rosenzweig.

(Charnoff) The Sister’s Rosenzweig is a classic example of Wendy Wasserstein’s ability to combine the personal with the political.

It’s the summer of 1991, and Eastern Europe is in the throes of liberation.

Sarah Goode is a wealthy single parent living in London. She welcomes her two sisters, Pfenni and Gorgeous, who have come to help her celebrate her 54th birthday. As with any family gathering, there is no shortage of tension, but as with most Wassertein plays, the drama provides fertile ground for comedy.

In this scene from the birthday party, Sarah’s daugtter Tess is with her Lithuanian boyfriend Tom. They plan to join the European revolution, which they’re explaining to a guest, Mr. Pim.

(Mr. Pim) “Tell me something, Tessie. Where does this passion for the Baltics come from?”
(Tom) “My dad is from Lithuania. And me uncle and me auntie still live there.”
(Mr. Pim) “There’s a decent old restaurant in Vilias.”
(Tessie) “The Old Celler, my Aunt Finny already told me.”
(Mr. Pim) “Tessie my love, do you think the state of Kentucky is viable without the United States?”
(Tom) “Lithuania has a people and culture independent of the Soviets.”
(Mr. Pim) “So does Kentucky.”

(Charnoff) After her birthday party, Sarah succumbs to the flirtations of one of the guests, Mervyn Kent. But in the morning, Mervyn finds that Sarah is reluctant to take the relationship any further.

(Mevryn) “I don’t understand what’s so wrong with you, Sarah. I like you.”
(Sarah) “Your world is very different from mine.” (Mervyn) “No it’s not. I changed my name from Cantlowitz and my daughter, the Isralie captain went to St. Pauls. And where did you come from Sarah?”
(Sarah) “Don’t proselytize me Merv.”
(Mervyn) “Sarah, you’re an American Jewish woman living in London working for a Chinese Hong Kong bank, and taking weekends at a Polish resort with a daughter who’s running off to Lithuania.”
(Sarah) “And who are you, my knight in shining armor? The furrier who came to dinner. Why won’t you give up Merv? I’m a cold bitter woman who’s turned her back on her family, her religion and her country. And I hold so much in. I harbor so much guilt and resentment that it all made me ill and capsized my ovaries. Isn’t that the way the oldest simulated story goes?”

(Charnoff) Wendy Wasserstein’s plays spoke to a generation of women discovering intellectual and personal independence. Her heroines were often ambitious and intelligent, while at the same time riddled with self-doubt.

Sandy Gartner of Rutland plays Sarah, and she is also one of Actor’s Rep’s Producing Directors.

Gartner points out the autobiographical nature of The Sisters Rosenzweig. The sister’s lives mirror those of Wasserstein’s own sisters, Sandra and Georgette.

(Sandy) “They’re three very very different women. They have gone in different directions. They’ve embraced their religion, or ignored that religion in very very different ways, and yet when they come together there is that bond of love between the three sisters, that family, that love.”

(Charnoff) Gartner says that one of Wasserstein’s talents was incorporating social issues into her plays, in this case the questions of ethnicity and religion.

(Sandy) “She’s witty, and she’s comedic and she banters, but she’s a very honest honest playwright. And she’s not afraid to tackle what’s going on with the decay of the American society, or class consciousness, or the falling apart of what’s happening in Europe. One of the missions of our theater group is to be able to bring that kind of caliber theater to the region as well, to bring more of a challenging edgy kind of a play.”

(Charnoff) Mervyn Kent is played by John Papais of Rutland . He is struck by Wasserstein’s ability to capture the lives of middle-aged people still trying to find themselves.

(Papais) “She concerned herself with issues of identity, self loathing and the possibility for intimacy and love when it seems no longer possible, or sadder yet, no longer necessary.”

(Charnoff)The Actor’s Rep production of The Sisters Rosenzweig is made especially bittersweet by the passing of Wendy Wasserstein.

John Papais recalls sharing the news with cast-mate Sandy Gartner.

(Papais) “I think we both heard it on the radio at the same time, and I think I called Sandy, and Sandy was in tears, and I said “Remember, she wrote a comedy”. And Chekhov wrote comedies too, and sometimes they’re played too much for the drama and not enough for the comedy. So I think we came to the next rehearsal with that vision of its so much about hope and life, and there was a part of Wendy in that room.”

(Charnoff) Sandy Gartner says that Wendy Wasserstein would be proud that the Actor’s Rep company is going ahead with their production of The Sisters Rosenzweig. Wasserstein dedicated the play to “all women who have endured and triumphed with the love of their sisters”.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

Note: The Sisters Rosenszeig runs through Saturday at the Paramount Theater in Rutland.

Wendy Wasserstein’s sister Georgette Levy will be speaking with the audience following the Saturday matinee.

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