Playwright’s Notebook | Sarah Levine Simon, “The Portrait”

The Portrait-1-WebOn Sunday, January 16, I had the opportunity to see Sarah Levine Simon’s play, “The Portrait.” What follows is my interview with her.

The play continues its run through January 26 at Theater 54, 244 W. 54th Street, 12th floor, New York City.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to center a play around an ancestral portrait? You mentioned that this portrait of Solomon Isaacs was in your family. Can you say more about how it came to be in your family (I’m assuming through the Hendricks line?) and how it came to be in the possession of the Jewish Museum in New York?
Sarah Levine Simon (SLS): My husband, Roger Hendricks Simon, did inherit a portrait of Solomon Isaacs, his Jewish American ancestor. It was painted by John Wesley Jarvis and hangs in the Jewish Museum today but it did reside with us for a number of years. Having this imposing figure in a gilded frame conflicted with our household style. We had artistic projects going on under Solomon Issac’s nose, these included rehearsals, teaching, cooking. And the home-schooling of two of our kids who were already involved in the arts. Abigail at the School of American Ballet, and Dan was already booking films as an actor. Our oldest child was attending Carnegie Mellon University. We called Solomon Isaacs Uncle Sol. When we first inherited Uncle Sol we were invited to dine with Roger’s mother’s cousins who sought to buy the portrait from us.  These people had never gotten on with Roger’s mother who was a bit of an iconoclast. But what happens in the play is highly embellished. However, these descendants of early American Jews were highly assimilated or so they tried to be. They also talked about their Jewishness as something they didn’t want people to know about.  In my family it was a shanda for Jews to behave this way.  Hence the play’s conflict.

We did finally sell The Portrait. It needed a lot of repair and cleaning and it seemed unfair to keep it in an apartment subject to temperature changes. We needed cash at that point and there were three children and no way to divide Solomon Issacs fairly. We contacted the Jewish Museum, because we wanted it in a public collection even if we took less money for it.

TWM: How did you come up with the surname Renard?
SLS: I came up with the surname Renard, because I worried that using the family name Hendricks or Issacs could provoke a lawsuit if anything were to come of the play and it has had now both a National Radio airing and the present production.

TWM: Why 1982 for the timeframe of the play?
SLS: 1982 was the actual time frame of the dinner party with the cousins.

sarahphoto (3)

Playwright Sarah Levine Simon

TWM: I found the dialogue and actions rich and layered. We certainly got a portrait of this family. Do you construct these layers consciously? I also found the characterization unique. When you first started writing this play, did you have a different view of the cast and individual characterization?
SLS: Layers: I think layers develop in the rewriting process. What comes out at first from me as writer is sketchy. I don’t see things all at once. But I do rewrite, have readings of my work and then rewrite again. I’m lucky that I am a singer and my husband is a director. We have access to good actors all the time and I credit the actors hugely in the development of my projects.

TWM: The staging — the flipflopping of the living room and dining room was an interesting, innovative touch. How was that developed?
SLS: The flip flopping of the living room: In a bigger theater we would have had a revolve. We tried the furniture off to the side but it looked klutsy. Roger choreographed the scene change. It is a bit too long for a lot of people but we have to use the space as well as we can.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction with “The Portrait?” Your greatest challenge?
SLS: Actually I didn’t expect to find myself writing in an “arch” style. But it seemed to fit the characters. It is difficult language for the actors because it requires quick repartee and a stylization. Roger also pointed out to me that sometimes the actors have several pages before another line is spoken so that they need to be constantly alert. This play would not work for advocational actors.

TWM: Any words of advice for the aspiring playwright?
SLS: If you have these kinds of visions, develop a group of people to read and react for you. Do the play where ever. When I wrote for Plays for Living it was necessary to render a work that could work in a basement room as well as a big theater. Five actors had to play 15 roles with minimal props. If you haven’t seen any of their work, you should. It is marvelous training for a writer.

Read the Jewish Week review>>>

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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