“DI FROYEN” (“THE WOMEN”) at New York City’s Theater For The New City

Foreground: With teh wonen having replaced their wigs with turbans, Pessa Leah (Melissa Weisz) consoles her daughter (Dylan Seder Hoffman). Behind: Rachel Botchan, Lori Leifer. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Presented by New Yiddish Rep, the searing drama Di Froyen (The Women) is based upon the play Women’s Minyan by Naomi Regan and has been adapted by Malky Goldman and Melissa Weisz.  Directed by Rachel Botchan, this provocative piece is now playing at New York City’s iconic Theater for the New City. Featuring a fantastic ensemble cast of seven, Di Froyen is performed in Yiddish and English (and, frequently, a mixture of the two, informally called “Yinglish”) with English subtitles via projection.  The subject matter is challenging yet riveting, the performances of all seven actors are excellent, and the direction is smooth and organic.  In just over one hour of running time, Di Froyen packs a true emotional wallop.  

L-R: Amy Coleman, Dylan Seder Hoffman. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Di Froyen takes place entirely in the setting of a living room in a Hasidic household.  This is quite fitting for the story, considering the play’s recurrent mentions of a woman’s role as a wife and mother.  As one character states early on in the play, “Your father does his duty in the synagogue.  The home is not his place.”  The audience gradually meets the titular women of the play.  We first learn of the central character, Pessa Leah Goldshtein (Melissa Weisz), through the conversations between her daughter Miriam (AKA Mimi, played by Dylan Seder Hoffman), now a young wife and mother-to-be of her own, and family friend/neighbor Beyla (Carad O’Brien).  Much of what we learn is rooted in salacious gossip and hearsay, along the lines of Pessa Leah wearing a red miniskirt, not covering her hair in public, and living with a “shiksa” (non-Jewish woman).  What we do know for sure is this: Pessa Leah, a mother of seven children, is returning to her family home two years after leaving her husband Yankel– an ordeal that has made her a pariah in the eyes of the other women in her community.  Those other women include her own mother Malke (Suzzane Toren), her mother-in law Rebbetzin Reyzy (Rachel Botchan), and her sister-in-law Hindy (Lori Leifer).  Despite the very real resistance from these women and the tight-knit community at large (The rumbling of angry male voices can occasionally be heard from the window), Pessa Leah is now insisting on seeing ALL her children.   She not only has a court order; she also has an ally: a no-nonsense social worker named Victoria (Amy Coleman).  The court has sided with Pessa Leah’s right to visit her children.  The audience learns, however, that the rules of society at large clash with the rules of the Hasidim: a conservative, sheltered community where the male religious leaders yield a lot of influence, and women have very rigid guidelines of behavior.  In five words, one of the characters summarizes the vast force behind the play’s conflict between three generations: “There are RULES for women.”  Pessa Leah’s mother Malke, in particular, is particularly rigid in her stance, even if it means shunning her own daughter.  When the social worker Victoria points out that “everyone is equal in the outside world”, Malke retorts, “Courts, ‘shmourts’!  It doesn’t matter to us. We have the Jewish Torah. In our courts, Beis Din, Reb Aaron is in charge. And his word is holy…” 

L-R: Dylan Seder Hoffman, Rachel Botchan, Lori Leifer. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Why did this young, intelligent, hard-working woman leave her husband?  Eventually, family secrets are revealed.  A major turning point in the story comes when another character opens up about her own experiences.  Will Pessa Leah’s mother, mother-in-law, and daughter eventually listen to her?  And, more importantly: Will Pessa Leah, who proved her case in court, also “win” the battle to see her children? 

The subject matter of Di Froyen does indeed get dark, but thanks to the playwright and the actors, even the more challenging elements of the story are gracefully handled, never becoming exploitative or heavy-handed. As mentioned before, all the actors are excellent, with each having their moment to show their talent.  As Malke, Suzzane Toren stands out as a woman determined to cling to her deeply engrained beliefs. Her unrepentant lack of forgiveness could easily border on comical or even cruel, except perhaps when viewed by sympathetic audience members as a manifestation of her extreme faith.  Despite the play’s serious themes, the gifted Carad O’Brien offers many welcome moments of humor as the nosy neighbor Beyla.  Playing the “outsider” Victoria (She is often called a “shiksa” by the other women, even though she tells them frequently that she is Jewish herself). Amy Coleman is indeed a standout, right on down to her choice of fashionable boots over the “sensible” shoes of the other ladies. Of course, this is perfectly fitting to her character.  It’s also a testament to her fellow actors in how quickly the audience gets the “feel” of the tight-knit, somewhat insular community shown in Di Froyen.  Dylan Seder Hoffman, Rachel Botchan, and Lori Leifer are all fine in their pivotal roles, while Melissa Weisz excels in playing the particularly challenging, complex character of Pessa Leah Goldshtein.   

True to its name, Di Froyen is a story about women.  While men and men’s roles are indeed mentioned in the story, and the cacophony of angry male voices are sporadically heard from outside, there are no actual men in the cast. Again, it’s a story about women.  And just like Pessa Leah’s narrative, Di Froyen is a story that needs to be heard.  

Pessa Leah faces her mother-in-law. L-R: Melissa Weisz, Rachel Botchan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Di Froyen (The Women), presented by New Yiddish Rep, continues through Sunday, January 30th at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street).  Tickets are 
$18 general admission, $15 seniors & students.  Running time: 70 min. There will be a special Live Stream performance on Sunday, January 30th at 3 PM, which is $18.  For tickets and more information, visit www.TheaterForTheNewCity.net or call 212-254-1109.

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