Rich Orloff thought to himself one day, “What would happen if you could go back in time and witness your parents at the time of your birth?”
This random question proved to be the catalyst for a years-long process that ultimately resulted in the play Jennifer’s Birth, which will be performed on Dec. 19 and 20 as part of Theatre Ariel’s salon series celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Orloff will conduct a post-performance dialogue to answer the audience’s questions. He’ll also listen to feedback to get a better idea how to stage his production.
“What’s wonderful about this opportunity that Theatre Ariel is offering me is the chance to see my play in an intimate, fairly low-stakes setting,” he said.
With only six actors performing it as a dramatic reading, Orloff’s words are elevated only through speech and body language.
The play follows Jennifer, a 57-year-old woman who — in 2010, through the wonders of therapy — goes back in time to see her family members interact during the months leading up to her own birth.
She witnesses things she never knew about her family; secrets that were never discussed that ultimately enable her to understand why her family has always acted in certain ways.
Jennifer sees her parents as newlyweds in their early 20s as they struggling to define responsibilities by the standards of America circa 1953 — responsibilities that included pushing boundaries and characters out of their comfort zones.
“The more I developed this story,” Orloff explained, about Jennifer being about twice the age of her mother, “the more it became about, on one level, a mother-daughter relationship — but with the ages reversed.”
With a Jewish family as the focal point, Orloff leavens the subject matter with Jewish humor, tying in an Old World connection with a Yiddish-speaking grandmother who immigrated from a shtetl. In between those comedic moments are serious and dark ones, overlapped with Jennifer’s shock and inability to intervene.
Deborah Baer Mozes, founding artistic director of Theatre Ariel, said she was touched by how compassionate the show is and the way Orloff got to the core of the female characters.
“I was really moved by the fact that as a male playwright, he was able to write a play that really beautifully gets into the psyche of women,” Mozes said. “There are not a lot of plays that have been written about Jewish life in this time period — early ’50s, post-World War II.
“To find a play that really creates that time period and looks at the impact of generations going back and going forward — there aren’t many Jewish plays that I’ve read that cover it so well.”
According to Orloff, this is one of his most personal plays. Before writing it, he had the opportunity to sit down with his mother, sister and one of his uncles to discuss their own life experiences during this time period.
“It was a great experience to be able to talk to my mom and say, ‘What was the honeymoon like?’ because I wasn’t there,” he laughed. “All of the characters are inspired by people in my life or in my own imagining of what my parents might have been like in 1953.”
Judaism is not at the forefront of the production, but Orloff said the Jewishness of the characters infuses their world.
“Being Jewish is part of who I am,” he explained. “I came from a very verbal ‘Let’s-talk-out-everything’ kind of family — or, more accurately put, ‘argue-everything-out family.’ ”
He said the show mimics a blend of styles somewhere in between those of his two playwright idols, Neil Simon and Clifford Odets.
“I generally write comedies,” said Orloff. “I’ve written a few dramas, and one of the challenges of this play is combining both. I described Jennifer’s Birth as a ‘heart-searing comedy’ because there are definitely parts of it that resemble a classic Neil Simon play. Then there are parts of it that are much more intimate and wrenching.
“If I’ve done my job well, both those styles will blend so that the audience doesn’t know from moment to moment if the next moment will be comedic or serious.”
Orloff wrote the play a few years ago but stopped to begin working on another. He eventually returned to Jennifer’s Birth, officially completing the first draft about 18 months ago.
Based on feedback from the audience and the way visualizes the play when performed, Orloff continues to tweak it each time. Already, he says it’s different from when he started off two months ago at the first rehearsal.
“Most of my plays go through many drafts,” he explained. “I think at this point, it’s about fine-tuning the play. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still writing the play — and I will keep writing the play.”
Based on his premise, he’s got all the time in the world.
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