Based on the award-winning memoir
By Laura Shaine Cunningham
Directed by Delia Taylor
TheaterJ, the Washington JCC
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, Washington
Mattress companies are forever reminding us that we spend one third of our lives in bed. Indeed, sleep occupies a very significant role in our lives, not only in its practical benefit of recharging our body but also in identifying our social status. We eye suspiciously the homeless – those who do not have a bed to sleep in – and we are instructed not to sleep excessively on the High Holidays, lest we set ourselves up symbolically for a sleepy and lazy year. In art, sleep oftentimes is a metaphor for death – Hamlet’s “To sleep, perchance to dream” – as it is in the Midrash, when the angels look at Adam as a deity of sorts, so he is made to fall asleep and dispel all such notions.
Sleep surfaces very quickly as an important metaphor in Laura Shaine Cunningham’s memoir, “Sleeping Arrangements,” currently playing at TheaterJ. In the opening lines, Lily (Tessa Klein), young girl, describes the uncertainty she and her mother encounter in apartment hopping. “My mother and I moved in a holding pattern from one relative’s apartment to the next … Sleeping on sofas and collapsible cots, we squeezed into odd slices of space … In the dark of different living rooms, we traded questions and answers that were always the same…”
Lily and her mother Rosie (Becky Peters) finally land a Bronx apartment in Anamor (which could very well be Greek for “without love”) Towers, apt. 3M. Almost immediately, Mrs. Hassan (Susan Moses), described in the stage directions as “Yenta Queen of the new building,” emerges and informs her new neighbors, “Named for the owners, Anna and Morris Snezak. I’m your downstairs neighbor. 2C, the one-bedroom line. So how do you like the two-night doubleheaders? I, myself, never cared for sports. My husband had to be near Yankee Stadium. I’m on a waiting list for Parkchester for 20 years. I’m waiting for a two-bedroom with parquet floors and a sunken living room. I saw you move in. You’re in ‘the efficiency.’ So what’s the story? (She eyes Rosie, Lily.) Where’s the husband?”
Over Hassan’s objections that her 10-year-old daughter Susan (Lindsay Haynes) is cut of better material than her new fatherless neighbor, Lily befriends Susan – who is hardly the innocent child her mother thinks she is – which especially becomes important when Rosie tragically dies and Lily’s future becomes uncertain. Hassan – who at one point tells Lily, “You don’t play with a nice girl like Susan! Susan has an upbringing! Go find some trash on the street!” – reluctantly pitches in to help Lily. Lily makes her way to camp with Susan – and then out of camp when it proves a traumatic experience – and is now being raised by grandmother Etka (Halo Wines) from Minsk and her two bachelor uncles.
Tessa Klein and Halo Wines, as Lily and Etka
All the while, religion plays an interesting role in the play. Early on, Susan tries to entice Lily to play one of her games with the pitch, “Come on. I know a great game … We’re Jewish but we can also worship Aphrodite! Because we’re Reformed! This building is almost all Jewish, but the lobby decorations were inspired by Zeus!” Indeed, this would have been news to Mrs. Hassan, who considers herself quite Orthodox. On one occasion, Hassan tries to scare Susan off of her carpeting. “If your footprints show on the wall-to-wall, I will know! I will know you disobeyed me! And G-d will punish you! And me, too! For allowing a bad influence!”
In a conversation with Lily’s Uncle Gabe (David Elias), Hassan humorously lays out the fundamentals of her own theology:
Hassan: I hate to tell you this; I see by the tilt of your hat and your yarmulke that you are frum. I don’t think the mother kept kosher. I don’t think she even looked for the little ‘o-u.’ I tried to talk to her once, and she said she loved treif. So this is your little window, your opportunity with the child – if she isn’t ruined already – to tell her about kashrut!
Gabe: …the difference between milchediche and fleishediche … Jews don’t eat milk [products] for six hours after meat and they don’t have meat until an hour after dairy.
Lily: Why not?
Gabe: These are the ancient rules of kashrut, and I observe them…The ancient Jews were very wise and it turns out this is the healthiest way to eat.
Mrs. Hassan: The goys all get worms, from pig meat!
Lily befriends another girl her age, Diana (Tiffany Fillmore), a homeless girl who has decided to become Catholic so that she can get a free communion dress and a statue in her honor when she dies. Diana’s sorts of games are far more dangerous than Susan’s, although equally dreamy. As Lily and Diana take to the streets, some boys yell after them, “You’re Jewish! You’re Jewish! You killed [Jesus]!” Diana replies, “I did not! And I’m not even Jewish. She’s Jewish, but she didn’t do it either!”
Paul Morella and Tessa Klein, as Uncle Len and Lily
But Cunningham’s play, although satirical, is based upon serious Jewish explorations. “I do consider myself as following a tradition of Jewish writing,” she said in an interview, referring to “a tam to Jewish writing – an irony, and a distinct style.” She cited Isaac Bashevis Singer as “someone I revere,” and Bruce Jay Friedman as “an early example of specific Jewish humor.”
At her Uncle Gabe’s request, Cunningham attended Hebrew school, and he told her she would be glad someday. “That day has arrived,” said Cunningham. This past Yom Kippur, when she was visiting Moscow where her plays are popular, she sought out a synagogue.
“My family is gone now, and I wished to commemorate them in this way,” she said. “It was a powerful experience – as the Jews in Moscow were denied worship for so long, and even in this synagogue, last year, an anti-Semitic skinhead had slashed eight people who were praying.
“I felt so proud to be Jewish there, seeing the synagogue they built and how it flourished, despite the anti-Semitism, and years of being denied.”
Cunningham remembers her Jewish summer camp experience in the Catskills – singing Hatikvah. She also views the love her uncles gave her as a “special kind of ‘Jewish’ love,” which she said derives from the tradition for a deceased mother’s brothers to care for the orphaned children.
Indeed, Cunningham sees the entire play as a Jewish package, which is quite funny at times, and quite sad at others. “The mixture of comedy and tragedy strikes me as a Jewish blend – for as a people, we have suffered; we can also release our emotions with wit, laughter Not jokes, but an antic despair, a way of seeing life.”
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.