Ingenious. This is the one word I continually use to describe the hit play, South of Delancey, that’s currently running at the Fremont Centre Theatre in S.Pasadena. Created and directed by Karen Sommers, this very funny drama transports you back to New York City during the uncertain 1940s and into the lives of some of the residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Jewish community. We watch as they struggle during troubled times to resolve their differences with a little help from the neighborhood Rabbi and a few of his friends.
You see long before the days of Judge Judy, Jerry Springer or any other number of courtroom or tabloid talk shows that grace today’s airwaves, there existed a Jewish arbitration court which heard cases and settled disputes within the Lower East Side. It was here that members of the community sought the council of famous lawyers, senators and rabbis, including founder Rabbi Rubin, who served as judges and presided over this court. By the end of the 1930s, these cases were being recorded and broadcast on a variety of Yiddish radio stations. It is these recordings which served not only as the inspiration for South of Delancey, but also provide the three court cases around which this engaging story is created. The unique way in which the characters interact with the actual recordings throughout the show is captivating.
The story-lines include: That of Faye Cohen (Abigail Marks-pictured), a vibrant young woman who marries Marty (Michael Rubenstone-pictured), just prior to his departure for the War, and upon his return questions if her love for him is still mutual. Their relationship is further strained by Fay’s ever-present mother, Sadie (Sharon Rosner). Then there is Helen (Jordanna Oberman) and Lenore Bitterman (Kal Bennett), two sisters, who aside from mourning the recent death of their mother, share virtually nothing in common and yet try desperately to coexist with one another under the same roof. The ordeals of Herman (Barry Alan Levine) and Lilly (Jodi Fleisher) round out the story as a passionate couple who mistake lust for love and thus deal with the aftermath of their ill-conceived marriage. This richly developed character piece explores an array of emotions and the solid cast delivers throughout the entire compelling performance.
I had a chance to speak with the creator and director, Karen Sommers, just as the show began it’s extended run. “The day of the opening I was shaking because I was so concentrated on doing what I needed to do to get the play up. I was trying to make a good piece for myself and the people who were working on the show. I was so focused on the audience because nobody had seen the play outside of the people who had worked on it. This was a piece that was formed in New York, about New Yorkers and here we are in LA with few New Yorkers in the audience so I was concerned how it would translate. At the end of the show’s opening, reviewers and audience members told me how struck they were with the show and how much they enjoyed it. I took a very deep sigh. It took a few weeks for all the positive reviews and all the positive feedback to sink in, just because of how challenging it was to put it up.”
Sommers has been developing the project for 10 years and credits her actors for assisting her along the way. “Everybody who’s working on this has been amazing and contributed so much to its development”. Sommers remarked that she’s seen the play evolve quite a bit since its inception in New York, and along with that so has her role in its continuing production.”When I was creating it in New York, so much of it was done in a workshop so I wasn’t worried too much about the directing, but more the creating. Where as with it here, I’m putting on a full-scale production where I easily slide into director mode. So having to jump back and forth between d irector and writer was really tough. And so when it was finally up on its feet, I was initially overwhelmed by the feeling of ‘Wow, it’s up’. But while the show ran, I got to go back and watch it, and every time I got pulled into the story again which really made me feel like… and not to pat myself on the back, it’s a good piece and I did a good job and am really proud of it. I’ve yet to get tired of watching this show.”
As for what’s next for Sommers, “I have some ideas for a couple other pieces in my head, ideas I’ve had for a while actually. Do I feel equipped and inspired to go ahead and start writing? You know, I don’t think of myself as a writer, a playwright – I’m a collaborative director and I think of myself as a stage director. I’m very inspired to direct again and Lissa and I, the artistic director at Fremont, have talked about working together again in the future. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for any future projects on the stage. For right now, I’m really working on trying to move this piece to the next level- be it regional theater in NYC, or an equity house, or simply a bigger, better location so it can be seen by larger audiences and generate more excitement”.
I truly enjoyed watching this play and think it would translate wonderfully on a bigger stage. In fact, I thought it was so nice, I saw it twice. So If you’re up for a good time and looking to spend a portion of your night laughing (or afternoon if you go on Sunday), then grab a friend and head to South Pasadena to see South of Delancey before it closes on July 31st.
For tickets and more information: