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E...Her Name is Ethel

Director JOAN MICKLIN SILVER looks at Ethel Rosenberg through a new lens in her latest stage project. Georgia Holof takes a look at a woman looking at women. logo

The hottest news on the new play front is that the multi-medium-loving bi-coastal director Joan Micklin Silver is returning to the New York stage with a new play, The Betrayal of Ethel Rosenberg. Playwright Lu Hauser is currently putting the finishing touches on the final draft with a first reading soon in the offing.

Not by chance is this play about a woman and by a woman, nor will the development process of this play be any different from any of Silver's other projects, which on screen includes such films as Chilly Scenes of Winter, Between the Lines, Hester Street, and, perhaps most famously, Crossing Delancey. Each film is centered by cliché-shattering roles for leading actresses. As a director, Silver is known to work tirelessly to make sure this is so--and she demands the same attention to detail from her cast and crew. Her women do not derive their identity from the men in their lives--or at least they learn not to do so pretty quickly. "Women make choices," says Silver. "We take action. We are assertive, not strident. We negotiate." The women in Silver's films have intelligence and, above all, humor.

One can see how this philosophy may have led directly to her wildly successful Off-Broadway revue, A...My Name is Alice which Silver co-conceived and co-directed with Julianne Boyd.

The two began auditioning writers and material in Silver's apartment. "We want to show women as we are at this moment," she told prospective contributors at the time of the development of the project in the mid-'80s. "Show us with all our quirks, foibles, strengths, and dreams. And we don't want to scare away the men in the audience. We like men."

Silver then included a variety of man-friendly segments in the show, including songs and sketches by Marta Kaufman and David Crane (Friends and Veronica's Closet), Steve Tesich, Doug Katsaros and David Zippel (City of Angels), and June Siegel, David Mettee and this writer, among others.

The American Place Theater did the first reading. With the aforementioned attention to detail, some re-thinking and rewriting followed. It was a cottage industry--with the various collaborators still working in Silver's living room. More readings, more rewrites, more meetings followed, along with advice from Silver: "Flesh this out with more dialogue," she told one team, a thought echoed by Boyd. "Cut this by a third," was the advice to another. The upshot was that every sketch--like every scene from a Silver film--was given the attention deserving of a three-act play.

A...My Name is Alice opened at the Village Gate in 1984 to critical acclaim and won an OBIE award. The Silver and Boyd team then followed up that success with A...My Name is Still Alice, with many of the same writers contributing material along with such new additions to the creative team as Michael John LaChuisa, Dan Berkowitz, Amanda McBroom, and Christine Lavin. With Silver again directing, the show opened at San Diego's Old Globe and, eventually, played Second Stage Theatre before heading out on tour. Finally, with "waste not, want not" being the typical motto of directors, songs from both Alice productions were woven into a (sort of) new revue, A...My Name Will Always Be Alice, which ran at Barrington Stage Company, where Boyd is Artistic Director.

The moral of the story, at least from the Silver point of view, is that the process of developing and enhancing material is at least as important as what results in the final product. Thus, if history repeats itself, The Betrayal of Ethel Rosenberg will be given a series of readings while Hauser rewrites and Silver polishes. And, when the right venue is found, we will be given a new, clear vision of this mysterious woman, executed along with her husband Julius in 1953 after they were pronounced guilty of espionage. Perhaps the long-unanswered questions about Ethel Rosenberg--Was she dark villain or tragic victim?--will be answered through this play.

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