Whether she was a dastardly spy who betrayed her country, or an innocent victim crushed by rabidly anti-Communist government officials, Ethel Rosenberg certainly had a histrionic flair. In Joan Beber’s play, “Ethel Sings: Espionage in High C,” the infamous Jewish wife and mother becomes a martyr of truly operatic proportions, along with her grandiose alter ego, Joan of Arc. The play opens this week in Soho.
Directed by Jules Aaron, “Ethel Sings” focuses on Ethel’s real-life aspirations to be a musical theater star. After graduating from Seward Park High School, where she played St. Joan in one of the school’s productions, Ethel (Shelby Kocee) joined a prominent choir, the Schola Cantorum. It was while she was waiting to go on stage for a benefit concert that she met her husband, Julius (Dan Sykes). While she never “sang” to the authorities by naming names, Ethel was close enough to Julius at Sing Sing Prison that, legend has it, she warbled “Good Night, Irene” to him on the night after they received twin death sentences.
The playwright, 78, grew up in Omaha, Neb., as the daughter of an attorney, Sam Beber, a founder of the AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph) national youth group and a second cousin of Ethel’s. After her father’s death, she learned that he had tried to get the Eisenhowers to intervene in the Rosenberg trial; he had even visited the Rosenbergs twice in prison.
After a career as an avant-garde painter, Beber went back to school in her 60s to earn a master’s degree in theater from UCLA. She then wrote two surrealistic plays, “Ethel Sings” and “Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn,” both of which deal with the Rosenberg case. While the second play was presented last year at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, the first has never been seen other than in a staged reading at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2004. To prepare for the current production, Beber took the cast to the recent Town Hall commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ execution.
In an interview, Beber told The Jewish Week that her play reveals many similarities between “meydl and maid” — the 20th-century Jewish matriarch from Lower Manhattan and the Maid of Orleans. Beber called the play a “wild ride” about an “ambitious Jewish mother” who felt a deep affinity for the heroic 15th-century peasant girl from Donremy — the character who, in the play, “readies Ether for her destiny and teaches her how to die.”
“Ethel Sings: Espionage in High C” runs through July 21 at Walkerspace, 46 Walker St. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3. For tickets, $18, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ethelsings.com.