Playwright Paula Vogel was a 22-year-old grad student at Cornell University when one of her professor’s suggested she read Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance.” Curious, off she went to the Cornell library where she uncovered a copy of the long-forgotten play.
When: To Nov. 4
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
“I read the first act and I’m thinking it’s a good play,” Vogel recalls. “But then I got to the second act and I read the most astonishing love scene between two women that to this day I have every read. I was stunned that a 24-year-old Jewish man in 1906 had written it.”
Asch’s play, set in a brothel run by a Jewish man who is attempting to raise his daughter piously, also has an interesting footnote in theater history. While it had a long and successful run on New York’s Lower East Side to Yiddish-speaking audiences, its 1923 English translation debut on Broadway was shut down by the vice squad (even though to the distress of the company the love scene had been cut) and the cast and producer indicted and convicted on charges of obscenity (eventually successfully appealed).
“God of Vengeance” and its history would stay with Vogel throughout her accomplished teaching (Brown and Yale) and writing (Pulitzer prize for “How I Learned to Drive”) career until the events surrounding it’s Broadway debut would become fodder for her most recent play the Tony Award-winning “Indecent,” also Vogel’s Broadway debut.
“Obviously that play stayed with me forever,” Vogel says. “It was very useful because I think it’s easy to make judgments about the understanding of gender according to the cover of the book. Men write this way; women write that way. Instead this young man who I would never meet gave me this lesson that there is an ability to understand and accept and celebrate love that may not be in your own skin.”
“Indecent,” which makes it Chicago debut under the direction of Gary Griffin at Victory Gardens Theater, is performed by a small ensemble of actors and musicians who play more than 40 roles to portray the life and times of Asch and the artists who risked their careers to perform his play.
Griffin feels “Indecent” examines “the value and power of theater. Plus I think Paula had compassion for what Asch experienced as a writer (he was attacked and ridiculed) and that is exposed beautifully in the play.”
Vogel developed “Indecent” with director Rebecca Taichman who had staged a production of an original work, “The People vs. God of Vengeance,” for her graduate thesis at Yale and for 20 years had held onto the notion of doing something more about Asch’s play. The partnership would be the closest collaboration of Vogel’s career.
“When I was first talking with Rebecca, I could see the shape and the ending of the play,” Vogel, 66, recalls. “She was open and generous and allowed me to explore my ideas. ’God of Vengeance’ is actually the protagonist of ‘Indecent.’ I wanted to tell the story of the artists who loved the play and the turning of America against immigration and toward censorship in the 1920s.”
It’s a really unique collaboration says Griffin and it took the two of them to get it done. “They clearly built up the larger idea of how to tell the story, the music the theatrical ideas. Now we’re taking that and finding our way of doing it in Chicago.”
Music of the era provides texture” in “Indecent.” Two dedicated musicians are on stage and some of the company also joins in on instruments. In developing this aspect, Vogel and Taichman brought into the mix Lisa Gutkin, violinist for the Klezmatics, and guitarist-accordionist Aaron Halva.
“I listened to around 300 songs from that time and the hard part was cutting that down,” Vogel says. “Lisa and Aaron arranged the songs and then created melodies that are original and run like a thread through the play.”
As for that long-awaited Broadway debut, Vogel, who is currently working on three new plays, says that it was “kind of wonderful” that it happened at the same time as one of her first students — Lynn Nottage, who was nominated for her play “Sweat.”
“The ability to share the experience with Lynne was really profound,” she says. “I had come to peace with the fact that if I never got on Broadway, I’ve had the most spectacular life as a writer and teacher. I don’t know if I’ll ever be there again but the truth of the matter is that it’s an honor and a joy to be done in any space, in any theater.”
In addition to being in town to see previews of “Indecent,” Vogel is also working on her new play “Cressida on Top,” which will be given a staged reading at the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival (2 p.m. October 6). Admission is free. Visit goodmantheatre.org.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.