Chicago native David Rush first conceived of his play Estelle Singerman years ago, when he was driving on Lower Wacker Drive and was struck by a vision of an old Jewish lady. That image haunted him, along with magical figures, such as one of a unicorn.
The play that developed from his imagination became a sad yet funny meditation on mortality, in which the cantankerous Estelle, over the course of a wild summer night's journey in Chicago, finds a sad-sack of a man who agrees to say Mourner's Kaddish for her after she is gone. When a snippet of Estelle was presented at the 2013 Jewish Playwriting Contest, which is sponsored by the Jewish Plays Project (JPP), it took top honors, earning a workshop production in New York.
Now retitled Summer Night, with Unicorn , it is back this year as a 2018 JPP contestant. Chicago audiences will have a chance to hear a portion of it and two other JPP entries on Sunday, March 25, at the Midwest Jewish Play Writing Contest, to be held at the Northbrook Theatre, in cooperation with the Continuum Theater, a Chicago-area Jewish theater and arts organization.
The title character from the original play, said Rush, a retired Southern Illinois University theater professor, was a composite character-a cross between his own mother and another Jewish woman, named Estelle, whom he had known earlier in his life.
"She was feisty, funny, cranky, and opinionated," said the playwright, who grew up in the predominantly Jewish Albany Park neighborhood of the 1940s and 50s and started writing at age 10. At Von Steuben High School, one of the city's public high schools that served much of Chicago's Jewish community at that time, he wrote a musical about kids at a music camp, parodying lyrics to popular songs of the time.
Whether or not his plays, which have been produced at some of this country's preeminent theaters and repertory companies, have overtly Jewish themes, "my Jewishness pervades everything I write," said Rush, who has received multiple Jefferson Awards, Chicago's equivalent of the Tonys.
In addition to Rush's Summer Night , Chicago audiences at the March 25 event will hear excerpts from two other JPP contestants: Six , by Zohar Tirosh-Polk, which considers the political aftermath of Israel's Six-Day War, and David Myers' How to Conquer America: A Mostly True History of Yogurt , which explores themes of identity through an imagined story about real-life ad executive Arlene Hoffman, who developed the memorable TV campaign featuring Soviet centenarians eating yogurt.
Artistic license was taken significantly in How to Conquer America , said Myers, so audience members should not conflate the real Arlene Hoffman, now living in Chicago, with the play's character, who is based, more or less, on his late mother, who grew up in Brooklyn.
"It's a Brighton Beach story," said Myers, about a Jewish woman who knows very little about her Jewish past and must reconcile the myths she has told herself about her family with its actual history.
Tirosh-Polk, whose plays have been developed and produced at repertory companies throughout the country, said that Six served as "a lens" through which she "could look at Israel and my family, past and present.
"My father fought in Jerusalem in 1967," she continued. " I wanted to try … and better understand that young man and the war that changed everything for Israel."
This marks the fifth year that Continuum is bringing the JPP contest to Chicago, said Devorah Richards, its executive director, who noted that Continuum and JPP shared a common objective: showcasing Jewish-themed plays on subjects that often do not find a home in larger theaters, such as social and economic justice, interfaith relationships, LGBTQ, and women's issues.
Richards said that the format of the event is a "concert-style play reading," in which professional Chicago-area actors will read 20 minutes of each play.
After discussing the plays and viewing a video clip submitted by the playwrights, in which they discuss the ideas in their works, audience members will voted on the best of the three. Their votes will be added to those of audience members in New York, Philadelphia, Houston, and other cities who are participating in JPP-sponsored contest events, and the play garnering the most votes cumulatively wins the competition.
JPP founder and director David Winitsky said that he took as his inspiration the "revolutionary spirit of the Yiddish theater, where ideas had to be worked out."
The plays by Rush, Myers, Tirosh-Polk and other contemporary Jewish playwrights, he said, are helping audiences to "navigate this complicated modern world."
Sonia Marschak, a Continuum Theater supporter, agreed. "There are so many Jewish stories waiting to be told by today's playwrights, and the Jewish Play Project opens the door for audiences eager to hear them," she said.
Tickets to the Midwest Jewish Play Writing Contest are $20. To purchase seats, go to a link at www.continuumtheater.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006, ext. 1.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.