On the stage and ‘Off the Derech’

Theater and Theology brings ‘Off the Derech Dolorosa’ to Jerusalem

‘OFF THE Derech Dolorosa’ – a Catholic comedy that couldn’t be more relevant to Jews and Israelis. (photo credit: AVRAH LEVINE)
‘OFF THE Derech Dolorosa’ – a Catholic comedy that couldn’t be more relevant to Jews and Israelis.
(photo credit: AVRAH LEVINE)
Off the Derech Dolorosa is a comedy about serious issues, the kind of questions that transcend religion, time and place.
Written by Tom Dudzick and directed by Yael Valier, the play centers around Mary, a new teacher at a Catholic school, who is caught between the strict views of the headmistress and her own, rather unorthodox perspective on religious education.

Off the Derech Dolorosa
will open at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater on June 6 and run through the 14th for a total of five performances. Each show will be followed by a discussion on the topics raised in the play, with religious leaders such as Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, Rabbanit Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, Dr. Elana Sztokman, and Rabbanit Shani Taragin.
Valier sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss finding the right play, tackling serious issues with humor, and making the audience think.
What can you tell me about this production?
It’s the perfect play for Theater and Theology because it’s a fun comedy and audiences will come to watch and laugh. Afterward, with the scholars I’ve invited to come and talk after each show, we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty and the themes that underlie the show. It’s both fun and thought-provoking.
How did you first hear about ‘Off the Derech Dolorosa’?
I’m always looking for “the right play.” I read plays all the time. When I was in New York a couple years ago, I went to the drama bookstore and bought a whole bunch of different plays that looked potentially interesting.
I found Tom Dudzick, who is a playwright who lives in New York and is very talented and interesting. I love a couple of his plays and hope to do another sometime soon. But for now, I found what I think is a gem of a play. It’s done very well in the states, and this will be its Israel premier. The playwright is quite tickled about that actually.
You gathered quite an illustrious group of diverse religious leaders for discussions after each production. How did you put that together?
The play is about Catholics, but 90% of the issues that arise are very relevant to the Jewish community and the larger Israeli community, including Christians and Muslims.
All religions share certain issues. How do we educate our kids? What’s the right balance of teaching love and also staying within the rules? We all have the same questions. If we claim that there is a God, how come bad things happen? Why would a perfect God care if we pray? All of these issues come up in the show.
I’ve gone for a range of scholars so that people can hear a point of view that they identify with and one that maybe they don’t hear so often. I’ve gone from liberal to conservative.
One of the central issues is whether Mary, the protagonist, can really have any influence as a nun, and how limited is she by Catholicism as a woman? I asked Dr. Elana Sztokman, who is a big voice in Jewish feminism and who is currently studying to be a Reform rabbi after spending many years of her life in Orthodoxy. I’ll be talking to her about her choices. Her deliberation certainly parallels that of the protagonist. That’s on the more liberal side.
Dr. Rabbanit Jennie Rosenfeld is one of the few Orthodox female rabbis. I’ll be talking to her about what made her do such an unusual thing in Orthodoxy and what made her stay in Orthodoxy at the same time. How does she handle it?
Then I have Rabbanit Shani Taragin, who is a great teacher and a great mind. She could sit for smicha tomorrow, so why doesn’t she? I want to hear a more conservative point of view from her.
The playwright himself has a more liberal stance than I do as a director. That was interesting for me. For the most part, I didn’t change his words, although with one thing I did, with his permission of course. But I did make decisions based on this in my directing. I would like that to come out a bit in my discussions with my scholars.
In order to write a wonderful comedy, all the characters can’t be as nuanced as they can perhaps in a drama. Mother Superior is the conservative character, with whom I identify in many ways, and she is the straw man in many ways, meaning she is easily pushed over. She doesn’t present a robust point of view. In a funny and extreme way, she presents a point of view that I think can be strengthened, and I hope to do that through the discussions.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the evening?
First of all, I hope to make people think. A piece of theater has to stand on its own and be worthwhile, even if people get up and leave before the discussion begins.
I have an excellent cast; I’ve been really blessed in that respect. I’m not using this just as an educational tool or just a springboard into the discussion; it’s a really good play.
I’ve been involved in theater for more than 15 years and have been involved in Rabbi Cardozo’s think tank for over nine years. So I think about theater and theology all the time. I’m always looking for opportunities to get people thinking about really important things in fun ways. So that’s what I’ll be doing and what my cast will be helping me do.
For more information or to purchase tickets: https://www.theaterandtheology.com