The Man in the Sukkah represents a few firsts for Theatre Ariel, the Jewish theater that presents salon-style play readings in private homes.
It’s the theater’s first play about a Jewish foster child. It’s also the first set in a sukkah and that takes place on a former Southern plantation.
The Man in the Sukkah is the second play in the theater’s 2018-2019 season. The theater will put on five salon-style play readings on Dec. 1 at 8 p.m., Dec. 2 at 7 p.m., Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. in private Main Line homes.
The fifth salon will be Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. in a Center City location. Theatre Ariel doesn’t usually have salons in Center City, but Founding Artistic Director Deborah Baer Mozes said the play will especially appeal to a young, urban audience.
“It’s very different,” Mozes said. “A big part of the salon experience is our conversation, and [playwright] Deborah [Yarchun] is going to be part of our conversation during the first weekend and maybe other shows, and it will create a really engaging conversation.”
The play revolves around a nontraditional family — the woman is Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor; the man comes from a neoconfederate background and lives on a former plantation inherited from his parents — who take in a Jewish foster child named Aviva.
“Both of the parents, who become foster parents, are struggling with their upbringings in their own way,” Yarchun said. “One who is coming from a family that taught him hate, and one that was a victim of hate.”
Yarchun began writing the play in 2011 while attending The University of Iowa for her master’s degree in fine arts.
The university put on the first production of the play. Since then, the play has gone through workshops and other readings, with Yarchun revising it in response to the feedback she’s gotten over the years. Now, the play focuses more on the characters than it did in the initial production.
She said the play comes out of various inspirations in her life. She has volunteered with children in the foster system, during which time she met Jewish foster children. She also spent time cleaning up a farm in South Carolina.
Her own Jewish identity served as an influence, too.
“I’ve always been interested in finding new ways to use Jewish rituals and incorporating them into one’s life in a secular context, and that’s very much what the main characters are doing during the course of the play on every level,” Yarchun said. “A lot of religious rituals are repurposed.”
Aviva, for example, uses a sukkah to get away from her foster parents.
“She uses this particular Jewish holiday as a way of not living in the household,” Yarchun continued. “By doing that, [she] ends up exploring her Judaism.”
The New York City-based playwright has a local connection: She got her undergraduate degree in screenwriting and playwriting, with minors in theater and psychology, at Drexel University.
She returned in October for the Alliance for Jewish Theatre conference, where she presented an excerpt from The Man in the Sukkah.
“I really love the Philly theater community,” Yarchun said. “I used to write theater reviews for my school paper, and so I was out and about town at every opening night that I could get to when I was a student, and I would love to return and continue to work in the city.”
Mozes first met Yarchun during the conference, but was aware of the playwright since she read The Man in the Sukkah about a year before through the Jewish Plays Project, an organization that helps develop work from emerging Jewish artists. Mozes is always looking for plays by new, emerging voices, and said she believes Yarchun has an important voice that will continue to have impact on the theater world.
Yarchun has other projects in the works, including a musical about singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman and a play about a pair of siblings who resisted the Nazis.
“You draw on what you know, and that was part of my upbringing. I often write about things I’m fascinated by and perplexed by at the same time,” she said. “Judaism will show up.”