NY Theater Review by Linda Amiel Burns
Off-Broadway premiere of Joan Beber’s Ethel Sings examines the life and trial of The Rosenbergs nearly 60 years after their execution for espionage.
For those growing up in the 1950’s, the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were tried and convicted of espionage, was shocking and controversial. Both were sent to the electric chair on June 19, 1953 a day after their 14th wedding anniversary. Joan Beber’s ernest, yet uneven, play examines their lives, mostly through telling Ethel’s story.
Will Pomerantz, the director, asks the question in his notes, “why Ethel Rosenberg and why now?” In going over the script, he was struck by how current the issues raised by the play still remain today. “The Rosenbergs were liberals, Jews, labor activists and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-communism and anti-Semitism. Their trial became a show trial for the rise of McCarthyism, and although the actual evidence against them was inconclusive at best, they were found guilty after only two weeks of testimony. They were the only Americans executed for espionage during the entire Cold War, and, at the time of her death, Ethel was only the second woman ever executed by the federal government up to that point in our country’s history.”
The play opens with Ethel in prison and continues with flashbacks of her early life, conversations with her difficult mother, meeting Julius and falling in love, their married life together and the birth of their children. Ethel had ambitions to be a singer and actress and had a lovely voice. By all accounts, she was not guilty and was used as a pawn to pressure Julius into confessing. She was put into solitary confinement for two years prior to the trial, but refused to name names despite the pressure that was put on her by prosecutor Roy Cohen and others. At the time of her death, Ethel was only 37 years old and the mother of two small boys.
Adrienne C. Moore plays Lorraine, the narrator, friend and guide who leads Ethel through her life as she prepares for her death at Sing Sing. This theatrical device is used to keep the story going, but is confusing, at times, as to whom she is and why she is there. At one time, she refers to something that happens in the future and when Ethel questions the reference, she says “that was after your time.”
Tracy Michailidis plays Ethel with great understanding and you cannot help but feel sympathy for her and her plight. It is mentioned many times that a highlight of Ethel’s youth was when she played the part of St. Joan at Seward Park High School (graduating at age 15) and that she identified with this brave woman who died for her beliefs.
Ari Butler is convincing as Julius, but the play emphasizes Ethel’s story, and the journey that led her to prison and death: the betrayal of her brother, David Greenglass, who testified against them, her unsupportive mother talking to the FBI, the pleas of her sons to come home, the brief and unfair two week trial, all seen in flashbacks. The talented cast members include Serge Thony, David Fierro, Kenneth Lee, Sheria Irving Kevin Isola, Tanesha Gary and Joel Leffert who play many different roles to varying degrees of believability.
The press release says, “Joan Beber’s ‘whimsical’ play is full of unexpected twists and turns.” It is hardly right to call a play with this serious subject “whimsical” and not easy to find humor where there is none. At one point, a musical number in the prison is injected into the proceedings, and it feels forced and not integral to the story. The play gives us some insights into Ethel’s character and early life but, from the beginning, the audience is aware of the terrible fate that awaits the Rosenbergs. The electric chair is part of the set and on the stage reminding us of what is to happen.
The story of The Rosenbergs is very haunting and a terrible part of America’s history. The production of Ethel Sings, although flawed, is a noble effort and, hopefully, will bring attention to and serve as a warning to new generations of what happened during the Cold War when the FBI and the government were allowed to overreach their authority and when hysteria, hate and fear was the message of the day.
Ethel Sings runs thru July 13th at the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street, NYC
TIckets: 212 239-6200
|10% of all ticket sales goes to The Rosenberg Fund for Children, the foundation started by Robert Meeropol (who has been a supporter of this production since its first reading) and named for his parents, that makes grants aiding American children whose parents have been targeted because of their progressive activism, as well as youth who themselves have been targeted due to their politics.|