Retelling “The Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Story” Reply

Review by Ellen S. Jaffe

In reviewing a play about historical events, we can ask: 1) what is the play’s relationship to historical events: how ‘accurate” is it? (2) what is its point of view? (3) how well does it work as a play onstage? I put “accurate” in quotes because “history” changes depending on who is writing it, and also in the face of changing information . These questions come to mind after seeing The Story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, produced by Teatron Jewish Theatre and playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. I recommend this play as an opportunity to see the human side of a historical and political situation * The events took place in 1950-53 during the fear-laden atmosphere of the Cold War, with the investigation of suspected Communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The episode still has repercussions today.

Actual booking photos of the Rosenbergs

Originally written and then performed in 1976 by Nina Serrano, with Paul Richards and Judith Binder, the play was based on trial transcripts and letters that Julius and Ethel wrote to each other from prison. It tells the story of this couple, accused, convicted, and executed for conspiracy, espionage, and giving atomic secrets and other military information to the Soviet Union. (Others were also accused and convicted in these charges). Now, 40 years later, the play has come back to light, adapted in 2016 for a high school production in Texas, and now, further adapted and directed by Ari Weisberg in Toronto, who added new characters and dimensions.

During the trial and throughout their imprisonment – up to the moment of execution – Ethel and Julius maintained their innocence, and refused to “name names” of other possible conspirators, even to reduce their sentences. Now, as Weisberg notes in his Director’s Notes, “additional information has been made public, including FBI files, Russian NKGB files, as well as a number of memoirs including that of Julius’s Russian operator Alexander Feklisov” and “damning evidence” by Alexander Vassilev, a former Soviet KGB officer.

Although this provides evidence of conspiracy, there is still much controversy about the Rosenbergs’ case. One particular issue is why were they the only U.S. civilians executed for espionage activity during the cold war – especially since they had two young sons, Michael and Robert (adopted after their parents’ death by Abel Meeropol, writer of the song “Strange Fruit”, and his wife.). The death-sentence received protests from people around the world, but President Eisenhower and the Supreme Court refused to commute it; the executions took place on a Friday night, minutes before the Sabbath. Despite the new information, the current production stays close to the original portrayal of the Rosenbergs as victims, recruited and implicated by David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother (who worked at Los Alamos).

Ermina Perez is wonderful as Ethel: strong, emotional, haunting; one feels her passionate presence. (She also excelled in Teatron’s Broken Glass in 2017 – she is an actor to watch.) Her singing is particularly effective. As Julius, Mitchell Eric Cohen is sincere and earnest, but a bit too much “on an even keel” (in the character’s own words); perhaps this is an intentional contrast to Ethel. The beginning and closing scenes, where the couple dance together, show the depth of their relationship; so do their letters, spoken throughout the play. Eric Fink is effective as David Greenglass, especially his comments from the vantage point of later years. As David’s wife Ruth, Cora Kennedy shows her simpering self-interest.

In supporting roles, Michael Lebovic is especially good as the Judge. I liked Robert Doumolin-White’s urgent enthusiasm as the ‘Newsboy’ (one of the new characters); he and a ‘Radio Reporter,’ Thomas Gough, (who also plays other roles) give us the historical context. This was useful, but at times a bit intrusive. I also found some of the staging, particularly during the trial scenes, too “busy,” which affected their clarity. In contrast, the final stark scenes in death-row at Sing-Sing Prison are moving and bring home the human as well as the political drama. Richard Hoffman, Jonathan Siegel, and Arnold Zweig give good performances in their various roles. Liza Zawadzka’s costumes create a sense of time and place; the contrast between fashionable civilian clothing and prison garb is striking. Ari Weisberg designed the set, which works well for the changing scenes, and Yehuda Fisher’s lighting helps create mood and tension.

There is not enough space in this review to discuss all the issues of the story, but several excellent books on the Rosenbergs and their family are available. Michael Meerapol will be in attendance on Nov. 17, for a discussion.
The Story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg” is at Toronto Centre for the Arts through Nov. 17.

A final note: At the performance I attended, I missed the acknowledgement that the land we are gathered on is the traditional territory and home of Indigenous peoples (specifically, in the Toronto area, the Huron-Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Métis, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, among others). In recent years, this respectful, responsible announcement at the start of a performance has become a key part of theatrical, literary, and other arts events.

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