It's easy to think of the settlers of the Upper Midwest as a homogenous group, a mass of Lutheran and Catholic northern Europeans who brought enough stoic personalities to fill a lifetime of Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon monologues.
The truth, of course, is far more complex, as immigrants arrived from all over the continent and with a myriad of faiths. Their experiences matched those of other immigrants, as they worked to carve out a new life and reality in a strange land.
Playwright Ken LaZebnik molds the memories of one of those immigrants into this engaging and often moving one-woman show. Buoyed by a strong score and lyrics by Leslie Steinweiss, and expertly presented by Kate Fuglei, Rachel Calof recreates the life of a Russian Jewish woman brought to be a bride for her homesteading husband in North Dakota at the end of the 19th century. It's a work that has earned strong notices in previous productions and is now in St. Paul for a very limited run at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Local audiences will recognize LaZebnik from the work he's done at Mixed Blood over the years, including premieres of Vestibular Sense and the award-winning On the Spectrum, not to mention work for A Prairie Home Companion. Here, he works with a memoir written by the titular character that wasn't discovered until after she had passed away. While the story ranges over a 60-year period, he focuses on the first few years Calof and her husband spent on the plains, near Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota.
From the start, Fuglei presents a no-nonsense character, stalking onto the stage with a mission in mind. It is 1936 and she is waiting for her husband to return from a political meeting. She is at the point of making a decision — to leave their comfortable St. Paul home and travel to Seattle to be with her daughter and grandchildren.
The setting is stark. While she describes the beauty of the dining room, it is represented by a simple table, two chairs, and a 12-by-14-foot outline on the stage. That is the size of the room — and the size of the first shack shared by the family on the prairie in the 1890s.
Rachel was a "picture bride," immigrating to the United States from Russia to join bachelor Abraham in marriage. It turns out that the family wants her for more than just a bride. A married couple can get a larger homesteading plot. Rachel is worth an extra 40 acres.
So a half a world away from her home and in an alien landscape — flat for as far as the eye can see — she needs to make a new life for herself. Living conditions don't help. That 12-by-14 shack isn't just for the two of them. They are joined by her in-laws and their youngest son, two flocks of chickens, and a calf for the long, brutal North Dakota winter.
Apart from the weather and the harsh conditions, Rachel's main adversary is her mother-in-law, who lets superstition and fear guide her life, and the lives of everyone in the extended family. Fuglei quickly inhabits this character, not just bringing her physically alive but also reveavling her mindset.
Fuglei's performance is captivating, whether detailing her first encounter with cockroaches in New York City or the day-to-day reality of living in a tiny home, carefully rationing fuel because running out would mean death.
Apart from the elements already mentioned, there are no other set pieces or props. Fuglei creates the whole thing with her body, movement, and voice, all of which build a rich and vibrant world. Beyond that are Steinweiss's songs. The show is subtitled "a memoir with music," and the selections have a lot more in common with classical art songs than rah-rah American musicals. Fuglei is more than up to the sometimes-difficult tasks presented in the music, and the pieces make a tremendous addition to an already full theatrical plate.
All of these elements combine for an enthralling 80-minute experience that reminds us of the harsh world immigrants faced in the region, no matter their background. It's also an experience you have to act quickly to see. The limited engagement runs only through Sunday.
More from Arts & Leisure