Anniversary play inhabits past and present

Ray Frank: The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West
A 150th Anniversary Play
Written by Jennifer Wise
Directed by Liza Balkan
at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue
Workshop Production, April 11, 2013

Reviewed by Leah Callen

My first honest-to-God reaction was: ooh, good title! Then I was amazed that I was watching a play about the real-life spectacle of a woman preaching at a synagogue back in 1895, inside the actual synagogue where it all happened.

Stratford, Ontario, actor and director Liza Balkan directed The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West, written by University of Victoria Associate Professor Jennifer Wise. 

The Hebrew Ladies’ Association is all a flutter about a female rabbi taking the helm at their synagogue. But who is this controversial Ray Frank? Is she a man-woman? Is she a preacher or a performer, a show-girl or a prophet of Israel? Will this Hebrew cowgirl really preach about heartthrobs of Israel or Milton or Shakespeare? Is she really *shudder* an actress? The newspapers of the day compared Ray Frank to Confucius, Moses, Buddha and Christ. In reality, she refused to be ordained to avoid taking orders, to have the freedom to speak her conscience. She was simply a gifted preacher.

The female characters in this play giggle and swoon as enthusiastically about suffrage as romance, deal with the money while the men argue; one even reads tarot cards. They persuade the men to give this female rabbi the unheard honour of leading the congregation at Yom Kippur, the holiest night in their religion. Despite gender expectations of the day, this crew was pretty forward thinking and pretty cool. In a clever stroke, the actresses switched into male roles with a simple costume change. The theme of this play was equality and the staging suited it. It was also exciting that the play took advantage of the whole building. I was seated in the balcony and had an actress sing right in front of me, as if I were time travelling to the past with her.

The build-up to Frank’s arrival stretched out a bit, but overall I enjoyed the verve of the star-struck actresses. Their characterizations were human. At first, the gender of the spiritual superstar is left a mystery. When Ray preaches, she surprises her fans with stage fright, far from the theatrics they’re expecting. I found it moving, seeing the past converge with the present as Canadian College of Performing Arts graduate Adriana Revalli channelled the feminist preacher from the actual altar of the synagogue, menorahs alight as she spoke. Frank’s message was an end to prejudice. She sees God in the forests and in art, and she makes a poetic prophecy that in the future, their “daughters will sing from the Torah.” The scene celebrated diversity and tolerance.

In the play, Ray Frank calls the synagogue a jewel in the city of Victoria that sparkles with enlightened minds and liberal hearts. But her presence polishes the place and casts “a radiant, golden light over this congregation,” helping others to see their own value. She encourages the women to go for more education, and the men to higher ambitions, for everyone to turn over new leaves. She made people “feel.” Samuel D. Schultz went on to become Canada’s first Jewish judge after she lit him up with the spirit, literally pitching ideas and a baseball to him.

For me, the highlight of the show occurred with the cast’s heartfelt folksong in Hebrew, Shalom chaverim: “Peace, friends, till we meet again.” It was gorgeous; Revalli’s vibrato itself was like warm honey. Is it strange to say it made me wish I was Jewish? I wished I knew the words and could join in as the audience harmonized with the cast. It was a gift to hear.

As I was leaving the synagogue, a young Jewish woman next to me rejoiced that the members would finally be able to fix a crack in the building with donations from the evening. Wise’s play made me appreciate this spiritual home, so I was glad to hear it. I really hope Emanu-El will keep shining in our city.

Leah Callen is an aspiring poet-playwright-screenwriter studying at the University of Victoria.