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Wrestling with prayer

SANTA FE, N.M. — Faith and alienation, love and loss, and the steps humans take to express and share their grief are explored in “The Lilac Minyan,” a play that will be presented this weekend at Teatro Paraguas.

The story involves Samuel, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who has not entered a synagogue since that systematic genocide, yet is trying to honor his dying wife’s request that he say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for her.

Jacquelyn Cordova, left, and Bruce McIntosh portray the featured characters in “The Lilac Minyan,” a play by Taos resident Debora Seidman. (Courtesy of Teatro Paraguas)

Jacquelyn Cordova, left, and Bruce McIntosh portray the featured characters in “The Lilac Minyan,” a play by Taos resident Debora Seidman. (Courtesy of Teatro Paraguas)

But traditionally, that prayer requires a minyan of 10 men.

“Samuel is facing the death of his wife, but he’s also facing the deaths of people he lost in the Holocaust that he didn’t feel were fully mourned. He’s also facing his personal death,” said playwright Debora Seidman.

The play shows how Samuel links with a younger woman, Alison, whose partner also is dying and who is estranged from her Jewish identity because of her lesbianism, to come together in mournful prayer.

“They are wrestling with what this prayer means to them, as two people outside the tradition,” said Seidman, who came to Taos in 2005 on a writing fellowship and found a way to stay.

The play is not so much a conversation between the two as internal monologues. “Samuel is talking to God,” she said.

In this production, Bruce McIntosh, who trained as an actor in New York and Los Angeles, plays Samuel and Jacquelyn Cordova, who appeared onstage as early as her years at Taos High School, plays Alison.

“It is a rich play – it’s about their story … but it’s also about giving an audience a chance to feel things collectively,” Seidman said. In this case, the feeling often is sadness, but many also see an affirmation of life in the tale, she said.

In ancient times, she explained, the temple of healing was located next to the playhouse, and her interest in live theater relates to that root of people sharing an experience and perhaps experiencing a collective purpose.

“The Lilac Minyan” had its beginnings in 1988, Seidman said, when her best friend died of cancer at age 27. That experience opened her eyes to how our society does not accommodate grief. “Her death brought me back to writing,” said Seidman, who was living in Massachusetts at the time.

At a writing workshop the next year, she started penning monologues in the voice of Samuel. It wasn’t anything she particularly planned. “It was organic. It’s just what came out,” Seidman said.

She had studied the literature of women Holocaust survivors and done work in Berlin, so “those stories are very much alive in me,” she added.

A friend who read those monologues commented that she might have a play within them, Seidman said, so she started working on one in the early ’90s. “The Lilac Minyan” was the result and it premiered at the New Works Festival in Brooklyn in 2000. It also was produced at the Immigrant’s Theatre Project in New York and the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.

After coming to Taos, Seidman said, she happened to mention her play to someone who led to it being produced by Metta Theatre there in November. “It was very well-received,” she said, adding that Teatro Paraguas then expressed an interest for shows in Santa Fe.

Seidman said she has written a couple of other plays that were produced, as well as another that has not been staged but which Metta Theatre is looking at, and she is hard at work on a new play. “The new play has a lot to do with the environment and challenges to the environment,” she said. “Bees have parts.”