When you start paying attention to Santa Fe's theater calendar, you soon notice a trend: solo acts. Based on no statistics or science whatsoever, I believe that, for a "metro area" (ha) of about 80,000, for Santa Fe to have access to six to eight one-person productions, particularly one-woman productions, each year is nothing to sneeze at.
I credit this to three things: Santa Fe is, as we all know, a bit of a spiritual mecca for those seeking to know themselves a little better; whether or not it actually works is up in the air, but folks (particularly of the 50-plus age bracket) certainly do like to talk about it once they get here. Secondly, having renowned memoir/solo performance coach Tanya Taylor Rubinstein and her Global School of Story based here is a huge boon to the genre. Lastly, there's the relatively new addition of jane-of-all-trades Talia Pura. (You know you have a small scene when two individuals can influence it so profoundly, but these are also two remarkable individuals.)
Pura, as I've discussed here before, is a prolific writer, actress, director and educator (and the list goes on). In addition to having written dozens of her own plays, she regularly participates either onstage or in the wings around town, and one of her specialties is one-woman affairs. Last November saw her original Metamorphosis, and now she's done something slightly different for her: She is performing someone else's script, with Nashville playwright Edward Morris' The Passion of Ethel Rosenberg.
Passion is based on letters exchanged in jail between Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, young parents accused of spying for Russia during the Cold War and executed in 1953. Even the Pope tried to intervene on their behalf, and studies on their activities are still ongoing; the consensus among historians seems to be that the Rosenbergs, proud Communists and fierce political activists, weren't necessarily angels, but shouldn't have been killed over it. As portrayed in this show, they evoke a Winston-and-Julia 1984 us-against-the-world kind of idealism, and it is hard not to empathize with the sentiment.
The show paints a rosy and sympathetic picture of Ethel, raised by a harsh mother in the shtetl of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She describes her childhood as an aspiring actress and singer, how deeply in love she fell with Julius, being framed by her brother and his awful-sounding wife, and the ways in which she and Julius tried to make the world a better place. In her description, they simply want the world to be run by laborers and workmen—you know, the people who actually do things.
Let's get one thing straight: Even as a rabid feminist and a theater junkie, I can still find one-woman shows a little tiring. They tend toward the formulaic. Tell stories from your past, sing a little song here and there, have at least two lines that start as a laugh then dissolve slowly into tears, have a prop or two (not too many), plead with the audience for something at least once—boom, there's your basic script.
Morris' script follows much of this formula, and I was often tired by it. That's not to say it was bad—he does a marvelous job of working in a very detailed history lesson through Ethel's monologue. That was where the script did its best work: communicating facts and illuminating undeniable corollaries to modern-day so-called "un-American activities."
I won't whip out the tired line, "He's a man, of course he can't write a woman's emotions," because I think that's a lazy criticism. However, the way in which Ethel spoke of her children was just what we'd expect from an incarcerated '50s housewife, and entirely lacked nuance. The sections about her humanness could have been saved by cutting the motherly appeals and simply letting her speak as a passionate yet trapped person—which a man could easily write.
But instead, heartstrings were tugged. "How often can you rehearse saying goodbye to your kids without going crazy?" Ethel asks at one point. (One audience member in particular crooned a heartfelt "mmm" after most lines like this; it only served to make me more irritated with the syrupy sentimentality.) Much more interesting than weepiness would have been how Ethel balanced badass activism with having two young kids, or how she seemed an early adopter of modern "alternative parenting" methods, allowing her kids to be messy humans rather than perfect angels. That kind of detail about her love for her family was far more illustrative than a line telling us that she had love for her family.
But it's important to separate the actor from the script. Pura, who recently became a grandmother yet reads easily as the spritely 37-year-old Rosenberg, also looks remarkably like Ethel in a short wig and prison-chic retro costuming. Her Ethel is plenty sympathetic, though she did keep the audience on our toes, wondering how much we were being manipulated. The bouncing, optimistic Ethel of the first scene contrasts marvelously with the quavering Ethel of the second, and the finally dejected Ethel of the third, attempting to buoy herself with gallows humor, ultimately failing. At one point, she dabs her eyes and mutters with a weak laugh, "I seem to be leaking courage." It's clearly a line she said jauntily in better days; now, hope is gone.
The Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953. "Julius, the weaker, went first," read a June 20, 1953 Washington Daily News article. "He died with a grotesque smile on his lips. … It took three shocks of 2,000 volts each to electrocute Mr. Rosenberg. Four jolts swept through Mrs. Rosenberg and still she was not dead. A fifth was ordered."
And, despite my hang-ups with the script, when I read of Ethel's death after having seen Passion, I felt a little more hurt—slightly more like I knew her; like she was perhaps my friend.