She brought a mystical Jewish strain into her career in the Church and gave comfort to many converts from Judaism who struggled to maintain a connection to Jewish belief and practice. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century saint whose grandfather was forced to renounce his Jewish identity by the Spanish Inquisition, never lost touch with her Jewish roots. In Begonya Plaza’s new play, “Teresa’s Ecstasy,” starring the playwright, the nun’s Jewish heritage is seen as a driving force in her life and work. The play began performances this week at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village. Catalan composer Alberto Carbonell supplies the music.
Directed by Will Pomerantz, “Teresa’s Ecstasy” is the story of a Spanish Catholic writer named Carlotta (Plaza), who travels to Barcelona in order to research a magazine article on Saint Teresa, and to serve her husband Andres (Shawn Elliott) with divorce papers. Traveling with her is her publisher, Becky (Linda Larkin), a lesbian Jewish woman who is the descendant of Spanish Jews. As the two women grow closer, they realize how much Teresa has become their role model in her commitment to faith, compassion, and human dignity.
Teresa, who was born in 1515, arguably never strayed far from a connection to her grandfather, a wealthy tax collector who was convicted by the Church for backsliding into Jewish faith and practice, and was punished by being forced to parade around Toledo for one day a week with other insincere converts. His granddaughter helped to reform the Carmelite order by infusing Catholic prayer with a mystical system based on an idea of four stages of spiritual ascent, which modern scholars view as based on Kabbalah, especially as it was developed by a circle of mystics in 13th-century Gerona. Her autobiography, which is one of the first in modern literature, is still widely read in Spain.
Plaza grew up in both Spain and Southern California. She has acted in many plays and films, and was the female lead for the first dozen episodes of the CBS series, “Dark Justice,” shot on location in Barcelona. She is also a documentary filmmaker, having made a film about the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. While writing a screenplay about a year in the life of Salvador Dali, she discovered that the artist kept a biography of Teresa on his bedside table, and she decided to write a play about the nun.
In an interview, Plaza told The Jewish Week that Teresa “must have been affected by her Jewish background. She created a form of prayer that was more acceptable to Jewish converts — a private, intimate, and mystical type of prayer. She was filled with courage and faith in the face of those who wanted to diminish her.” Plaza was especially inspired by Bernini’s famous sculpture of Teresa, which is housed in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
“I’ve learned so much about myself in writing this play,” Plaza said. “Teresa helps Carlotta to let go of fear and have confidence in God. I’m not a religious person, but I’m a person who has faith that if I do the right thing, I will have a higher power to protect me.”
“Teresa’s Ecstasy,” which is now in previews, opens on March 14 and runs through April 1 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m. (Beginning March 25, Sunday performances will change to 2 p.m.) For tickets, $60, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.ovationtix.com.
UPDATE: A performance has been added for Monday, March 12, 8 p.m.