July 18, 2019

Confronting Death in ‘It’s a Life’

From left: Charlotte Evelyn Williams, Arva Rose, Lisa Robins, Harris Stone in “It’s a Life.” Photo by Maureen Rubin

Talking about death doesn’t have to be depressing. It can illuminate, uplift and entertain, as the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) production of “It’s a Life” demonstrates. Playing through March 20 at The Braid in Santa Monica and other locations, the show presents 16 provocative pieces chosen to promote conversation about a topic most of us try to avoid.

JWT Artistic Director Ronda Spinak sorted through over 200 submissions to find a range of stories reflecting humor, irony and inspiration. “Even in the Kaddish, the word ‘death’ is not mentioned. We took our cue from that,” Spinak said after a rehearsal. “We wanted this show to be a celebration of life, for these stories to make us remember and feel and think about the future.”

“A lot of the stories are universal and others are specifically Jewish,” producing director Susan Morgenstern said. “The Last Mitzvah,” in which three women volunteers from the chevrah kadishah prepare a body for burial, is one of the latter. It’s about showing respect for the dead. It’s very beautiful and meaningful.”

 For JWT veteran Arva Rose, one of the actors in the piece, it’s something she’s experienced first-hand. When a fellow congregant died, she participated in the ritual with her (female) rabbi and called it “an extraordinary experience.” Rose also said she connects strongly with “My Zaydie,” which she wrote about the loss of her own grandfather. “He was everything a grandfather is supposed to be,” she said. 

Other stories include the tale of a young female rabbinical student whose first task involves counseling an Orthodox family; a woman who believes the feathers that suddenly pop up everywhere are messages from beyond the grave; and the daughter who finds the perfect way to comply with the final request of a father she loathes. A dead opossum, a bequeathed typewriter and an obituary that goes viral figure in three of the lighter pieces.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “The Perfect Dive,” about facing the Angel of Death. “[It’s about ] grappling with mortality and the idea that life can change in an instant,” said writer Susan Baskin, who was inspired by her experience with breast cancer. Introduced to the JWT by a friend at the Santa Monica Synagogue, the screenwriter and essayist is making her theater debut.

“All of us are afraid to talk about death and dying or don’t like to. None of us are going to get out of here alive, and it’s OK to think about it more than we allow ourselves to.” — Susan Morgenstern

Lisa Robins, who performs in Baskin’s piece and several others, has been involved with the JWT since its inception. “All of the stories speak to me in some way,” she said. “Society is afraid to deal with anything to do with death. The more we talk about it and bring it into the light, the better off we all are.”

Harris Shore, a singer, actor and playwright who became a cantor 10 years ago, is making his JWT debut with “It’s a Life” and thinks it will resonate with audiences. “There’s a lot of universality in the experience because it’s all about the inevitable. We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “This is the life God gives us and ultimately it’s our decision how we see it.” 

Raised in a small Pennsylvania town where the one synagogue was his “second home,” Shore entertained on the Borscht Belt and Pocono circuits and for the troops in Vietnam before moving to Los Angeles. Best known for guest roles in “Seinfeld,” “Bones,” “Wings” and “Weeds,” he will appear in Hallmark Channel’s “The Crossword Mysteries” on March 10 as Detective Cherashney. His next project is “Killing Klaus,” a play he wrote about a man’s plan to assassinate Nazi Klaus Barbie.

Unlike Shore, Robins grew up Jewish in name only. “My father and stepfather were atheists,” she said. Fifteen years ago, she landed the first of several roles playing Jewish women, most notably a grieving mother in “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” at The Braid. “All these roles gave me my Jewish education,” she said. “Now I go to Nashuva and I’m a co-chair of the social action committee.” She plans to remount “Broken Heart” this year and is working on a solo show about her family. 

Baskin, who was raised in a traditional, observant home, has always felt connected to Judaism, and that connection strengthened when she joined a feminist Torah study group. “Whatever I got from it has stayed with me,” she said. “It gave me a deep appreciation and respect for the Jewish tradition.”

Learning Torah also brought Rose closer to her faith. “Being Jewish has always been really important to me, and about 25 years ago I began serious study,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary joy to be a Jewish woman among Jewish women who are artistic and grateful and proud Jews. It’s hard to be a Jew and it’s hard to be a woman and it’s especially hard to be a Jewish woman. But when Jewish women get together, we can make the world go round.”

There will be an audience Q&A session after each performance, and Morgenstern anticipates some interesting and meaningful exchanges. “All of us are afraid to talk about death and dying or don’t like to,” she said. “None of us are going to get out of here alive, and it’s OK to think about it more than we allow ourselves to.”

“It’s a Life” runs through March 20 at The Braid and at other locations. Visit jewishwomenstheatre.org for more information.