What happens in the mikveh stays in the mikveh … until it doesn’t.
In Orthodox Judaism, mikvehs are ritual baths, and women of the faith visit them monthly, seven days after the end of their periods, for a dip in the purifying waters before they can be intimate with their husbands. In playwright Hadar Galron’s award-winning play “Mikveh,” which enjoys its Florida premiere Feb. 20 at B’Nai Torah in Boca Raton, the mikveh is a place where community is celebrated and where inequity is exposed—where the rubber of ancient tradition meets the road of encroaching modernity.
Set entirely in the titular place over a span of several months in the 21st century, “Mikveh” features an all-female cast of eight dynamic characters, each instigating, or succumbing to, the sea changes affecting their world. The ensemble is led by Erika Scotti as head mikveh attendant Shoshanna, an exemplar of hush-hush, Old World Orthodox values. “Our ritual and tradition is now in a conflict with the modernization of what’s coming in,” Scotti says. “That’s my own struggle. I’m trying to keep everything as it is, but elements are starting to come in that, by the end, make me rethink my own thinking.”
Chief among those “elements” is Shira, a new mikveh attendant played by Peggy Linker, whose renegade beliefs and actions lock horns with Shoshanna. “I have a problem dealing with situations that are kept secret and that need to be exposed, especially when I see abuse,” Linker says. “And I am shocked and dismayed by the fact that the old guard wants to keep everything under the rug. At the same time, I have my own secrets, as Shoshanna discovers about my life and my marriage.”
Periodic appearances from a diverse constellation of congregants force this community’s secrets into the sunlight. They include Chedva (Jennifer Coe), the battered wife of a powerful local politician; Tehila (Yafi Yair), a teenage bride unable to cope with the harsh realities of her arranged marriage; Miki (Ellen Murray), a secular woman forced to immerse in the mikveh to please her newly orthodox husband; Hindi (Rene Barrett), a menopausal woman with deeply held reasons for continuing to visit the mikveh; and Esti (Lory Reyes), the mikveh’s resident gossip and a mother of six, who, like Shoshanna, initially resists the changes percolating through their environment.
Domestic abuse, political corruption, infidelity and suicide are just a few of the sobering themes Mikveh explores. Undergirding them is a sense of women’s empowerment best achieved through community. “As a feminist, I have difficulty with some of the rituals that take place in the religion,” Barrett says. “I find it a very powerful play, and it relates very much to the #MeToo movement. I think rituals and traditions are good, but I would like to see them evolve as time goes on.”
“The audience gets to see us become enlightened,” adds Scotti. “We go from being subservient to, ‘if you see something, say something.’ The audience gets to go on a journey with us to see how we evolve as women.”
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of levity in “Mikveh.” Galron is a comedian as well as a theatre artist, and this production’s director, Shari Upbin, emphasizes humor wherever possible.
Upbin believes the play’s themes will resonate with the congregation of B’Nai Torah. “This play has orthodox women, but also women who are coming around to being orthodox. The people who make up B’Nai Torah, a 3,000-seat temple, have a lot of things in common. Most orthodox or even conservative women are asked to go to the purifying waters. It’s not foreign territory.”
But ultimately, the play’s universality transcends orthodoxy, and even Judaism. “It’s a women’s story,” says Reyes. “And coming from the south, you can imagine that Billy Bob is beating his wife, and everybody’s saying that she just fell down the stairs. You can really imagine that happening in other small communities.”
“These secrets are not exclusive to these characters,” adds Coe. “Far too many women go through what all of our characters go through. … It’s a feminist play in a very real way. Because you see the journey, and it’s not a falsely saccharine ending. It’s a beginning.”
“Mikveh” runs for two performances only, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, at B’Nai Torah Congregation, 6261 S.W. 18th St., Boca Raton. Tickets cost $25 for members and $36 for the general public. Call 561/392-8566 or order online at btcboca.org.