By Gwen Orel
Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play “End Days,” which received an American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg citation, has already been staged nine times this year — including an ongoing production in Salt Lake City — and will open in Atlanta next month, and outside Philadelphia over the summer.
In “End Days,” a Jewish mother deals with post-9/11 trauma by becoming an evangelical Christian, awaiting the Rapture. Meanwhile, her husband is too depressed to get out of his pajamas. Their angry daughter dresses as a Goth, but softens once she discovers the work of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking — thanks to an earnest, optimistic teen who dresses like Elvis and, although not Jewish, is studying for his bar mitzvah.
Laufer, whose previous play “The Last Schwartz” was published in “Women Playwrights: The Best Plays of 2003,” is a playwright in residence at the Julliard School. She recently spoke recently about “End Days,” how it has been received in different religious communities and her own connection to Judaism with Forward contributor Gwen Orel.
Gwen Orel: Why do you write so often about Jewish characters, and what’s your relationship to Judaism now?
Deborah Zoe Laufer: I’m so Jewish. I had it thrust upon me as a kid. I’m really an atheist. I’m from the Catskills, from Liberty, where Grossinger’s Hotel is. It’s where “The Last Schwartz” takes place. … All talk of God aside, I feel very connected to my Judaism. I feel Jewish-American, just like people are Italian American; it’s my identity. I’m fascinated by how people continue to negotiate what that means in their lives — generation to generation. I can only write as a Jew, just as I can only write as a woman.
Have Jewish critics and non-Jewish critics responded differently to the play?
Some critics felt I was disrespectful towards evangelicals — that Sylvia, the mom, seems crazy — but she’s a mother who’s terrified her daughter is going to die and not be saved. I have had evangelicals say finally a play’s been written from their point of view. That makes me happy. I worked hard to understand what might drive people to make those choices. … It’s doing phenomenally well in Salt Lake City, but one reviewer was angry at the audience for laughing when Sylvia would say “Thank you, Jesus.” [The character thanks Jesus, a character who appears only to her, when he hands her a cup of coffee or a coat]. Clearly it wasn’t funny to him. Where people are coming from and their basic philosophies of life color their outlook.
Why do you write so often about the impact of religion on peoples’ lives?
What people need to get by is what a lot of what my plays are about — how we get up in the morning, knowing we’re mortal. The idea of God is not really interesting to me. … Science is an open door to me, it’s just thrilling; it’s a pursuit of knowledge worth living for. What I don’t understand is why people feel you have to be one or the other — why people are so threatened by people not believing what you believe. In “End Days” I was trying to explore the idea that these different beliefs can coexist under the same roof and there could still be tolerance and love, and they would save each other by being a family, rather than any of the other possibilities.
Why is the evangelical character a Jewish woman?
The fact that she rejected her Judaism as a rebellion against her family and then has chosen to embrace something that’s really even more extreme rings very true to me. I’ve seen a lot of it. … After the 2000 election, I felt that I didn’t understand the country at all. … After the 2004 election, I heard that 40% of country was evangelical. I had no idea what that means. I like to write about what I don’t understand, to try to get inside it.
The singing of a Torah portion marks a turning point in “End Days,” but you’re an atheist. What about the ritual is meaningful to you?
There are things that resonate from childhood — mostly for Arthur [the father], it’s about his family. I love the moment when Arthur kisses Nelson [the teenage boy next door] after he’s sung the lines very purely and simply. Now Arthur gets to be the father helping a son learn, and continue with the tradition. That’s what brings him alive again — that tradition, not faith.
Do you think there’s a growing antisemitic presence in the theater?
I think there’s a growing anti-Jewish feeling in the world, and it scares me; it perplexes me. It’s like a story that I would think needed more filling out if I were reading it. I do feel like a controversy that’s antisemitic gets a lot more attention than something that is more all-embracing. What my play is trying to do is be a plea for tolerance.