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The female magician whose most amazing escape was from her father

There’s a moment in “Death Defying Escape,” a new play by comedian Judy Carter, when I realized I’d been tricked.

The three-actor production, now running at Hollywood’s intimate Hudson Theater, tracks Carter’s life: as a child growing up in L.A.’s Fairfax district (“We were the poor Jews,” she quips, “we still had our original noses.”); as a pioneering female magician and comic in the 1980s; and now, as an older woman, when, she jokes, society has made her actually invisible.

I assumed that as the show drew to a close that she’d already revealed every sad or funny twist to her eventful life. But I gasped at the shocking conclusion – which I won’t spoil— and I’m someone who didn’t find the end of “Silence of the Lambs” all that shocking.

Carter is my down-the-street neighbor, someone I’ve seen socially enough times to think I understood what she was about. What I didn’t understand was that Judy Carter’s life is the essence of the Passover story.

Pharaoh was her father: a short-tempered, violent, frustrated man. Her mother was a talented but thwarted artist. Her grandmother, from the old country, lived in a twilight of paranoia.

“Judy,” the grandmother screams in the play, “the Brownshirts are at the door!”

“Bubbe,” Judy’s character responds, “that’s just the UPS.”

Both parents struggled to take care of Carter’s sister whose cerebral palsy left her unable to speak, sit upright or feed herself.

“I dreamed of becoming a magician,” Carter says in the play. “I didn’t want to saw women in half; I wanted the power to put them back together. The power to make my father disappear and levitate my sister Marsha out of her wheelchair.” 

Magic becomes Carter’s life, and Harry Houdini her spirit guide. Houdini was another Jew, she points out – the son of a rabbi, no less – trying to disappear into a different kind of life. 

“All my dad did,” she says, “was sit on the couch and make alcohol disappear.”

She read what books she could find on magic and learned the secret to Houdini’s miraculous escapes: As chains and ropes were put on him, he would expand his chest, so that when it came time to free himself, he just needed to relax to create slack.

Carter got good enough to be among the first women to appear at L.A.’s famous Magic Castle, until a male magician picked her up and tossed her out — for being a woman. She persisted, Vegas and TV gigs followed, and then she discovered her comedic voice and booked bigger shows, guest appearances on late night, the big time. 

Back home, the family tragedies compounded. Her parents locked Marsha up in an institution over Carter’s protests and heartbreak. 

Heavy yes, but in the show she manages to punctuate the saddest stories with slight of hand. As she relates the sudden death of her mother, she cuts a rope, clenches the two ends, and opens her hand to reveal they are perfectly fused.

“The ties between mothers and daughters,” she says, “can never be cut.”

The childhood trauma weighs on Carter, who even after coming out to her parents can’t open up to her loving, confident girlfriend. She forces herself to channel Houdini.

“You have to make yourself bigger,” she says. “Your heart bigger, your chest bigger. That’s how you break out of your chains.”

The Passover story we repeat each year at our Seder tables is all about a people’s liberation, but watching Carter’s play I was struck by how the themes play out in our individual lives. The haggadah’s exhortation to see ourselves as if we personally had gone out from Egypt turns out to be the best and shortest TED Talk advice ever.

In the play’s final reveal, accompanied by its own show-stopping magic trick, you realize Carter’s death-defying escape from bondage was no miracle, just a combination of stubborn will, hard work, and some luck.

Carter was stuck in a narrow place — the literal translation of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim. She had to confront her oppressor, then find the strength to run and the faith to step in when the waters parted. 

The greatest Passover stories of all, it turns out, are the ones we can one day tell about ourselves.

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