Actually, the one-woman show that I saw last week has very little to do with the subject of the title, namely, mothers-in-law. I am one such, and even an ex-one in one case, but not a step one, or not yet, at least (and I hope never).
The play was recommended to me by my son and his wife, and so I was sure it would be about the mother-in-law issue and relationship problems. I soon found that I was greatly mistaken. What we were treated to was a highly original portrayal of the history, emotions, reactions and experiences of a member of the generation of our parents and grandparents in Europe before and after WWII. This was done in such a delicate and oblique way that one had to be on one’s toes and wait for the end of the evening before realizing what the subject of the play really was.
The sold-out performance was held in a small space in one of Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods. The solo actress, Naomi Yoeli, moved about the stage, at times representing her own persona and at others the ex-step-mother-in-law as well as other members of that family living in a small town in pre-war Hungary.
The main character’s family of origin is described by means of a letter from her mother, written shortly before Hungary was invaded by the Germans. In the letter, the happy mother announces the forthcoming marriage of her daughter, Agi, to the scion of a very wealthy family (also Jewish). Although she is careful to preserve the proprieties of good behaviour and social mores, the letter contains accounts of the apparent wealth of her daughter’s future family, to her evident satisfaction.
The almost bare stage contained an elegant round table into which drawers were built. From time to time a random member of the audience would be invited to sit at the table, open one of the drawers and extract its contents. In one instance this was a set of miniature wooden items of furniture typical of a bourgeois European home, in another it was a porcelain plate and bowl, and so on. Each set of items served as a trigger for Naomi, who now assumed the persona of Agi, speaking with a light Hungarian accent, to recount some aspect of her life, sometimes in a rambling highly imaginative way, sometimes evoking the time and place of her youth. In one particularly enchanting moment, she waxes lyrical about a particular Hungarian pastry she loved, whereupon trays of that pastry were handed out to the audience. It was delicious.
Thus, not necessarily in consecutive order, we learn about Agi’s childhood and youth, the attempt, together with her husband, Latz, to avoid deportation, the release from the concentration camp and her efforts to find surviving members of her family. There are also accounts of encounters with Russian, French and American soldiers of the Allied Army. No mention is made of the horrors of the camp, which we later learn was Auschwitz. We learn, too, that just prior to the establishment of the State of Israel she and Latz moved there, and that she was not very impressed with the place.
Towards the end of the evening, Agi suddenly becomes more assertive, abandoning the refined, cultured Hungarian lady we have come to know, and in firm tones she repeatedly declares that she refuses to speak about ‘it.’
However, upon hearing a final, apparently innocuous, incident, we learn that Agi and Latz, now a retired professor, were strolling in Haifa with a visiting academic and his wife. The latter asks Agi what it was like in Auschwitz, and upon hearing her noncommittal, evasive reply, which ends the play and could be described as the ‘understatement of the century,’ the stunned, audience breaks into appreciative applause.
The relationship between Agi and Naomi appears to have been a good one, with daily phone calls and regular meetings in a café. We do not learn how Agi attained the ‘ex’ and ‘step’ status that might have been the subject of the play. What has happened, however, is that in the course of the evening we have, almost unwittingly, gained an insight into the psyche of someone who endured Auschwitz and was able to rise above it and live life on her own terms.