No matter how you look at it, Passing the Love of Women is not, at heart, a gay play. Sure, the two central characters are young Talmudic scholars who fall in love with each other and abandon their families to live together as a sanctimonious couple in another town. And yes, Ziesl (Karl Miller) must dress and live as a woman to pass for Azriel’s (David Covington) wife “Ziesa. ” But at the core of Passing is a much more complex and multi-faceted feature than its male-male sexuality. It is the relationship between two opposing forces of nature that must coexist that makes Theater J’s English language premiere such a striking, intense evening.
Like many young men who struggle to cope with their love for other men, Ziesl and Azriel are no exception. Only in this setting, mid-19th Century Poland, the two friends must also face their deeply-rooted religious convictions as well as their carnal desires. Ziesl’s Rabbi father (played with strong conviction by Mitchell HÃ©bert) senses that the two men should be raising families instead of burying their heads in Judaic scrolls. His own daughter seeks to marry Azriel, while Ziesl has been promised to a chaste, pretty young thing named Esther’l (Amy Montminy). Against his own will and Azriel’s wishes, Ziesl agrees to marry Esther’l and reluctantly performs the “Will of God ” on their wedding night. The next morning in a bold demonstration of free will, Ziesl dresses as a woman, fleeing the town of Frampol with Azriel. Together they want to study Torah and live in peace, but soon realize that they want more than a study partner in the other.Â
Inspired by the short story “Two ” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Passing was adapted for the stage by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner and Singer’s own son, Israel Zamir. While Singer’s story focuses on how the love of two men is so strong that it ruins the lives of everyone around them, it is not strictly a romantic moral fable. Rather, Singer’s message concerns the ethics of depravity, of the torments between mind and body, will and fate, and of harsh, religious moral code versus the tolerance of secular society. The lessons in Passing resonate as a polemic, teaching love and acceptance, which seems vastly appropriate in our age of proposed constitutional amendments and attempts to ban gay marriage.
Covington and Miller are convincing as the brave couple who fight against paranoia as they begin to doubt each other and themselves. There are moments of real tenderness and bonding between the two. Covington displays pronounced peaks of distress, and is visibly disturbed by his confessions that he does not want Ziesl to be a woman. Miller is also a smart and infinitely clever actor, and is especially vulnerable and sensitive as the scholar forced to live a subservient existence to his spiritual equal.
Although it’s easy to consider Passing the Love of Women as little more than a tale of forbidden love and longing, it is ultimately a brave, multi-layered story that is as complex as the tapestry of human nature, a compacted examination of yin and yang, masculine and feminine, love and hate, spiritual and carnal. And it is one play that should not be passed by.