Jewish mothers are a staple of Jewish humor, but as freewheeling as Jewish mother jokes may get, they do not typically relate to Mary, mother of Jesus. Now comes Michele A. Miller’s slapstick comedy, “Mother of God!,” in which what Christians deem the “greatest story ever told” is reframed as the tale of a dysfunctional Jewish family in ancient Nazareth. The play opened last week at the Richmond Theater on East 26th Street.
Miller, who now lives in Westchester with her husband and two sons, grew up in Great Neck, where her family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. She majored in anthropology at Stanford, and then went on to get a doctorate in archeology at Boston University. She then spent five years in Israel doing excavations at Sha’ar HaGolan, a Neolithic village in the Jordan Valley. Despite her specialization in pre-history, her experience in Israel got her thinking about the relationship between Jewish and Christian religions. When she moved back to the United States, she started writing plays, including “Products of Conception,” about a couple’s heartbreaking journey through infertility and loss.
Directed by Melody Brooks, “Mother of God!” was originally conceived as part of a women’s theater project, in which the participants were asked to write a new version of the Christmas story. In the play, Mary, whom she renames Miriam (Keona Welch) is absolutely convinced that she is carrying the son of God. But her family and friends are doubtful and perplexed.
The play’s protagonist is Joseph (Charles E. Gerber, who starred in the national touring production of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy”), who is derided by other characters as the “biggest schlemiel in Judea.” The hypocritical Joseph must come to the realization that maintaining an outward appearance of righteousness is less important than doing the right thing by his family, however bizarre his family situation may be.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Mary character,” Miller told The Jewish Week. “She’s always seemed like the ultimate Jewish mother. I wondered what her life was like as a teenage girl dreaming of the big city.”
Miller points out that the Second Temple period was one of great instability and infighting in ancient Palestine, and many Jews then may have longed for a new king. She thus sees Mary and Jesus as perhaps inadvertently furthering other people’s political agendas.
Aside from the political implications of Mary’s claim, Miller links Mary to other Jewish women throughout history. After all, she notes wryly, “Every Jewish mother thinks that her children are God.”
“Mother of God!” runs at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, 309 E. 26th St., through March 26. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call TheaterMania at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.theatermania.com.