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NEWS: MN Jewish Theatre Returns to Live Performance with Sally Wingert, A Pickle

If you were going to return to live performances with a big splash, what would you pick?

The Hennepin Theatre Trust’s answer this past winter was simple: Hamilton, the genre-bending Broadway mega musical hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sadly, this was not to be – as the Third Wave of COVID-19 infections swept through the country, the Hamilton tour organizers became skittish about a potential wave of late, expensive cancellations. And so the tour’s arrival was postponed from July 2021 to April 4-May 7, 2023. It’ll be a long time coming, but as the show goes, they’re not going to miss their shot.

Closer to home, Minnesota Jewish Theatre is also working to not miss its shot. After a 3-show hybrid season package captioned Theatre Six Feet Apart, the company is returning to in-person entertainment with a fourth work: a solo play starring the legendary Sally Wingert – Deborah Yarchun’s A Pickle.

Actor Sally Wingert will star in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production of Deborah Yarchun’s hit play A Pickle.

A Pickle, you say? What makes a play about pickling (of all things) a certain shot in what, for many companies, looks to be a financial make-or-break moment as audiences increasingly weary of virtual performances? First off, there’s history: A Pickle tells the real-life story of Doris Rubenstein, a Richfield resident who discovered that her traditional Jewish kosher brine pickles were being unceremoniously tossed by the Minnesota State Fair. The resulting scandal went nationwide, being covered by major and minor media outlets alike well before “going viral” was a catchphrase. (You can hear about some of this coverage in the play.)

Yes, you might say, the State Fair tie-in is nice, but does Minnesota quirkiness sell when you don’t get to actually eat the food? Well, there’s a bit of demonstrated history there: when Really Spicy Opera premiered the play at the Minnesota Fringe Festival 2017, it sold out every single performance. The customer service problems from all the people turned away at the door are why each Fringe show now has a minimum number of door tickets for sale. Follow-up engagements at Bryant–Lake Bowl and Sabes JCC also sold out – even when a blizzard required that every single ticket be refunded and sold again for the makeup date. 100% sold-out is a pretty good history to leverage when selling audiences on returning to in-person, live theatre.

For the second year in a row, the Minnesota State Fair rejects Doris Rubenstein’s traditional kosher dill pickles. When Doris confronts the judges, it becomes clear that they don’t understand her traditional Jewish brining process. They also inform her they have “a difficult time judging recently arrived immigrant groups.” Doris realizes there’s more than pickles fermenting, there’s hell to raise. A Pickle is a darkly comedic look at prejudice and the power of Chutzpah (outrageous gumption). Based on a true story.

So, what about that script? This stellar, tongue-in-cheek comedy had its on-stage origins when Doris Rubenstein cold-called the Playwrights’ Center in 2014. The story, she said, would make a great play.

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When Doris came a-calling, Hayley Finn, the Associate Artistic Director of the Playwrights’ Center, knew exactly who she thought would write that great play. “I was thrilled to get to know Deborah Yarchun when she moved to Minneapolis on a Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center,” Finn said. “I also collaborated with Deborah on several workshops of her plays. She is an extremely imaginative and funny writer, so when Doris Rubenstein reached out to me about her pickle story, looking for a playwright to work with on bringing her true story to the stage, Deborah immediately came to mind. I connected the two of them, and the rest is history…or, I should say, the rest is this play.”

“I remember my curiosity was immediately piqued,” said Yarchun. “It sounded like a fascinating story and, as a Jewish woman, I was enticed by the story’s Jewish angle. [Then] when I met with Doris, she brought her chutzpah and her pickles.”

One of the perks of being a Jerome Fellow is access to the Playwrights’ Center reading series and dramaturgical input. Once Yarchun had a working draft, the PWC put together a reading (directed by Hayley Finn) before the year was over. Then, as other projects took over, the script moved into that liminal space where so many plays linger before their premiere – until Yarchun got a call from Really Spicy Opera’s artistic director Basil Considine in June 2017. There was just one problem: Yarchun was off at a rural writing retreat…and out of phone service.

“Usually, when you call a playwright and say, ‘I want to license your script’ and hear radio silence, that means they don’t want to work with you,” Considine recalled. “So the production almost didn’t happen – but then, a week later, Deborah returned to civilization, got my voicemail, and agreed to license the play if we got the right actor to play Doris. Everything suddenly kicked into major overdrive – I think we had less than 24 hours to submit some of the promotional materials – but I was willing to hold out because I knew the play was worth it.”

And so the production dashed ahead, with casting, rehearsals, and revisions in short order – and an opening at the Ritz in Northeast Minneapolis to a sold-out crowd.

Critics loved A Pickle: “The comedic dialogue is impressively colorful,” wrote the Star Tribune’s Crystal Duan. “The show talks prejudice without being preachy.” Jill Schafer praised the play, calling it “A great story, well written, and personified brilliantly by Angela Timberman.” A succession of sold-out performances later, the production hopped over to Bryant-Lake Bowl, where it sold out, and then to the Minnesota Jewish Humor Festival, where it sold out again. Now, three years later, it’s poised to return with the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production.

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Staging a safe and responsible live theatre production during the COVID-19 pandemic requires more than a little care. Actors’ Equity (the union for professional stage actors and stage managers)’s own guidelines were only finalized and announced on April 2, requiring that theatre companies wanting to employ Equity actors scramble to implement structured COVID testing protocols, certify (and sometimes upgrade) air conditioning systems, and more. That’s no simple matter – according to several sources contacted by the Arts Reader, Actors’ Equity’s Midwest office has been besieged by inquiries related to the new guidelines, as contractors and theatre companies work to make sure that everything’s just right.

The reward for getting everything just right was a casting coup for the MJTC production: getting Sally Wingert to play Doris on stage. Called “The Meryl Streep of Twin Cities theater” by Star Tribune critic Rohan Preston, Wingert is no less than a local acting legend. (Her credits including the movie Fargo and the TV series Ally McBeal, along with innumerable theatre engagements, including co-hosting the Guthrie’s 2020 virtual gala.) Hayley Finn called her “the marvelous Sally Wingert”.

Playwright Deborah Yarchun was equally exuberant. “I couldn’t be more thrilled!” she said. “Sally’s a dream…I jumped up with joy when I learned she would be playing Doris.”

Doris Rubenstein herself put it this way: “I am complemented that the Twin Cities premiere comic actress was interested in playing the role. I’m excited and curious to see her interpretation!”

And that’s not throwing away this shot.

The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production of A Pickle runs May 27-June 13 at various locations around the Twin Cities. At press time, 3 of the 11 scheduled productions were sold-out; advanced reservations strongly recommended.

A previous version of this article stated that MJTC’s first three shows this season were all virtual performances. Its first show in the season was performed outdoors, and the second and third shows were virtual.

Amy Donahue