There were reasons for Carole Goldman to decline the role of Ma in Richard Greenberg's Jewish-assimilation play "Everett Beekin," opening tonight at South Coast Repertory.
First, there was the matter of salary, since Goldman was doing less theater in favor of higher-paying jobs on TV series such as "NYPD Blue." Then there was the character's unflattering appearance, the bane of any actress. Ma is 60-something, plain and heavyset, requiring the performer to wear heavy padding, a housedress, bulky corset and gray wig. "It's not how I like to be seen," Goldman admits. "It's not an easy embrace."
Yet once she read "Everett Beekin," by Pulitzer Prize-finalist Greenberg, she felt compelled to accept the part. For the past year, she explains, she has been on a journey to reclaim her Jewish roots. As part of the process, Goldman has been enlarging old family photographs and gazing at the faces of her relatives.The first act of "Everett Beekin," similarly, felt like a snapshot to Goldman, an eerily accurate portrait of her Jewish family. The four characters mirror the four relatives who attended the weekly get-togethers at Goldman's grandmother's home. The character of Ma was her Grandma Lena - the Russian immigrant balabusta who bustled about, ran the household and served bounteous portions of borsht and brisket.
Sophie was her Aunt Sylvia, the sister who was middle-class and had to work as a secretary. Anna was Aunt Rose, the well-off sister who lived on West End Avenue, shopped at Saks and ate at Schrafft's. The play featured a familiar rivalry between the sisters and a silent husband, Jack (just like Goldman's Uncle Jack) who ignored everything except his deli sandwich.
"I love the play because it helps me to understand this family that is so familiar," says the award-winning actress, who has starred in "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Geraldine Page and David Mamet's production of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge."
"I wanted to do the [piece] to honor my grandmother. I am playing my grandmother."
The comedy-drama follows the assimilation of a Jewish family from a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side circa 1946 to Orange County in the late 1990s.
Goldman's assimilation story began in the Bronx housing development where she lived as a girl, where she encountered anti-Semitism. She recalls that the middle-class project maintained a Jewish quota, and that neighborhood children teased her with the refrain, "Red, white and blue, your mother is a Jew."
Her father was too distracted by her mother's illness to join a synagogue, she recalls. And when her mother died of cancer when Goldman was 12, there was no family rabbi to comfort her. "As a result, I felt apart from Judaism," she says.
While everyone else was preoccupied with her mother's death, taciturn Grandma Lena remained a solid, loving figure; her flat was a place to go when Carole was all alone in her apartment. Grandma was always there, waving from her ninth-floor window whenever Goldman returned home from school.
Goldman was even more disappointed, not long after her mother's death, when her father forbade her to continue her pursuit of theater. She was allowed to paint, however, so she attended New York's prestigious High School of Music and Art and then Parsons School of Design. After that, she worked as a fashion sketcher at Blooming-dale's before giving up her career to have children.
Goldman was in her 30's when she earned her first stage role, quite by accident. The New Jersey mother was a volunteer who painted scenery for a Jewish community center play when the director suddenly asked her, "Can you sing?" An actress had dropped out of his production of "Guys and Dolls" and he needed another Hot Box girl. Goldman landed the role.
Some successful turns in community theater led the actress to study with teachers such as Sanford Meisner and to earn professional roles.
But if Goldman felt as if she belonged in the world of the theater, she felt like an outsider as a Jew. Over the years, she scarcely stepped foot in a temple; when her son became a bar mitzvah, she was proud but uncomfortable with the Jewish ceremony. "I felt like a gentile in synagogue," she says.
The change came last year, when Goldman had an epiphany while visiting the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. "I realized I wanted to honor my relatives who had died in the Holocaust," says the actress, who embarked upon a Jewish odyssey. "I realized that I was a Jewish woman and that I was tired of feeling alienated. I decided I wanted to rediscover who I am and where I come from."
Along came "Everett Beekin," which provided Goldman with a visceral way to reconnect with her past. The actress was so enamored with the play that she took extra pains before her audition: She sprayed her hair gray, twisted the strands into a bun, wore a sensible black skirt and searched the Salvation Army store for a blouse that reminded her of Grandma Lena. As a final touch she cut off a pair of pantyhose and rolled them down below her knees. Several hours after the audition, the producers telephoned: Goldman had the part.
During rehearsals last week, a reporter asked the actress whether some might view Greenberg's "angle" on the fictional Jewish family to be clichéd, even stereotypical. Goldman disagrees. "The relatives may have jealousies, they may have words, but they love like crazy," she says. "I recognize these people. I don't see them as negative. I think Richard got the truth."
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