Born in 1876 in Russia, a motherless Rachel Calof found herself at the age of 18 married to a stranger in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, “the only place colder than Russia.” The couple shared a one-room shack with her parents-in-law, brothers-in-law, a nephew, chickens and a cow. Her bed was a depression in the floor of the shack; there was neither outhouse nor latrine. Back in Russia, Rachel, the daughter of an elegant mother and a long line of Cohanim, had not been permitted to accept the hand of a butcher’s son.
Nine children later, at the age of 55, Calof wrote a memoir in Yiddish. In 1982, thirty years after her death, her children found the manuscript and had it translated into English. It was published by the Indiana University Press in 2009. Now, the memoir has been adapted by Ken LaZebnik into “a memoir with music.”
In a compelling performance, Kate Fuglei plays Rachel as well as her husband Abraham, her tyrannical mother-in-law Charadh, and other characters. For a Manhattan audience, the poverty and hardships are unimaginable -– Rachel is left alone seven hours after giving birth; a newborn is burnt by a stovetop lid wrapped in a blanket and there is no medical help at hand.
The set is a sparse table and two chairs and in this small space, Fuglei captures Rachel’s indomitable spirit as well as the claustrophobia, cold, dirt, odors and vast magnificence of the prairie sky.
An appreciative opening night audience rose to its feet.
“Rachel Calof: A Memoir with Music” runs through November 21st at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd St.
Sharon Anstey is a writer and business consultant based in Manhattan.