In the Village Voice, director Caroline Kava said Jenna Zark’s “A Body of Water” is about the “rituals that give us a way to honor ourselves,” ourselves in this case being women — specifically, Jewish women. The ritual that ties the two quite disparate acts of Zark’s play is bathing in the mikvah, which an orthodox Jewish woman undertakes seven days after the end of her period. That the tradition is rooted in the unalterably sexist belief that a menstruating female is unclean seems to matter little to many of the women, orthodox and otherwise, who practice it; as it has been for generations of Jewish women, the mikvah offers a sensuous respite from the workday world, a brief retreat into femininity and female companionship.
Overseeing a mikvah near Chicago is Devi (Stephanie Roth), short for Devorah. In the first act, she initiates into the bath Sandy (Jodi Thelen), a non-practicing Jew losing interest in her sexually voracious husband, Eddie (Bruce MacVittie). Secretly slipping away for the bath, Sandy hopes the denial required by going to the mikvah — no sex during menstruation, of course, and none until after the bath — will rekindle her desire. Eddie suspects her of having an affair, while her mother fears she’s becoming frummeh, religious.
The second act is set five years later and brings in the modest home Devi shares with her husband, Gershon (MacVittie again), and their five sons. A sixth child is on the way just six months after the last was born, and Devi is frantic with exhaustion. In separate visits to their rabbi (Don T. Maseng), husband and wife ask in coded language for permission to abort the pregnancy, and in both cases the rabbi responds with talk of souls looking to be born. Leavening this scary situation is the rabbi’s had-it-up-to-here-with-tradition wife, Malka (Thelen), and Devi’s young doctor, Natalie Carroll (Nikki Rene), whosesympathy for her patient is tested by the religious tenets that seem to have entrapped her.
All this is worth recounting because while “A Body of Water” sometimes sounds like a consciousness-raising seminar, Zark draws the women with remarkable compassion and humor. This small play is as much about passionate love as it is about the need for rituals that give us a way to honor ourselves. And it’s about independence of spirit, the dignity that small, private acts — whether bathing in the mikvah or the traditional casting out of sins that ends the play — bring to ordinary lives.
Though the production softens here and there, Kava has drawn two wonderful performances out of her leading women. Roth, still remembered for her luminous performance in Tom Stoppard’s short-lived “Artist Descending a Staircase,” is equally luminous here. In a beautifully modulated portrayal, she shifts effortlessly from equanimity to empathy to sheer panic. Thelen makes a stunning transformation from Sandy to Malka, both willful women but in every other aspect — including looks — totally different. MacVittie is good but less chameleonlike, though the male roles are all somewhat shortchanged in the writing.
“A Body of Water” will rotate at Circle Rep with Regina Taylor’s “Escape From Paradise,” which may be one reason for the impoverished look of the production. Loy Arcenas’ blanched set is functionally minimalist for the first act, ugly and confusing for the second. The rest of the tech credits are OK. There may be no commercial future for “A Body of Water,” but it deserves a production that honors this intimate, resonant writing and these telling performances.