Walking from Rumania
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
March 28, 2009
In the late 19th century there was a movement, the Fusgeyers, who walked across Romania to the Hungarian border, from where they could emigrate and escape the repressive laws of a deeply anti-Semitic country. Walking from Rumania is a new play by Barbara Kahn that explores what a group of women following this movement might have been like. While the title is deceptive—the characters don't even begin to walk away from Romania until the show's end—and the play is more about how horrible it was to have walked in Romania at all as a Jew or a Gypsy at that time, there are some performances of merit and a great deal of commitment within this flawed but interesting production.
Largely confined to the house of the Koslov sisters, Walking from Rumania covers the circumstances of six Jewish women within a village. In addition to the two sisters, there are two friends who have differing degrees of Zionism, a Hasidic rabbi's only daughter and a widow who is also the town's whore. Some women, like Mim Koslov (in a fine performance by Sylvia Milo), are making preparations and in full communication with whatever group or organization was in charge; while others like Gittel, (Amanda Yachechak, honest and effective as the rabbi's daughter), simply want a chance at a life and education. Well, initially that may be all she wants but as the play develops (and rather quickly) a romantic relationship begins between Gittel and Mim. After a day-long pogrom culminating in an attack on one character and the death of another, the hopelessness of their lives in the village has a profound effect on this relationship and prompts even the widow Irene, who has more than her share of equanimity, to leave Romania.
While portrayed with sweetness and affection, the romantic friendship between the two women seems both oddly easy for them to accept and completely unremarkable for their friends to deal with. In a society where roles are so highly regimented and people live in strictly defined groups, it is hard to believe that a lesbian relationship would engender no reaction at all. Yet the work displays a somewhat revisionist view of homosexual acceptance and the status of a sex worker at the time. With no awareness on her part of either disapproval or censor, Irene blithely walks into the "respectable" household and the only reaction to her visit is the realization that she was at one time possibly friends with the Koslov sisters' dead mother and therefore may be able to tell them something about her? It just doesn't ring true.
Ultimately the play is an exploration of what would drive people from their homes, but the focus on a setting where those reasons are obvious is frankly less interesting than the characters' ultimate response—to walk across a hostile country as women alone to a point where they trust they will have the chance to emigrate to the United States, Canada, or Palestine. While many works have used the horror of pogroms to convey the evil of anti-Semitism, the Fusgeyers movement and the variety of Jewish responses within a culture whose anti-Semitism was so hostile as to be enshrined at an institutional level, is less familiar and more interesting than simply to repeat that anti-Semitism is bad. The work focuses on showing the narrowness of possibilities within this culture for these women and the violence of the anti-Semitism around them with writing that frequently defeats its own fine intentions. One woman's only other option to leave would be an arranged marriage, but she is quickly and easily talked out of it. Then when what is meant to be the most horrific moment of the play occurs, it is so hampered by dialogue that verges on the melodramatic that it is possible to miss the potential sophistication of the scene's setup—that the scene has two victims and while one is a participant in the violence, it does not mitigate that two lives are potentially being destroyed in front of us. It is as if the work sees that there are facets of sin but insists on flattening them into good or bad only.
For all of its good intentions, Walking from Rumania has further to go before being fully realized.