By Graydon Royce for The Star Tribune
Given mean circumstances, living creatures demonstrate a mystifying spirit of resolve that might be called heroism. We can never get enough of these individual tales of perseverence — so long as they are told well. Playwright Ken LaZebnik and actor Kate Fuglei tell the story of “Rachel Calof” very well. The 70-minute solo performance, which LaZebnik adapted from Calof’s memoir, opened Thursday for a short run at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul.
Rachel was 18 when she stepped off the boat in New York harbor. She had come to marry Abraham Calof, a man who took her to “the one place colder than Russia: North Dakota.”
Textbook history flattens out with broad surveys of eras and impersonal trends. “Rachel” reminds us again how frighteningly close to the bone life can be. To wit: how did these people retain their sanity while living in windowless shacks on the merciless sheet of land called Dakota. This assumes no snobbery; pioneers in western Minnesota had it no better.
Fuglei begins the story in the 12-by-14-foot dining room of Rachel’s St. Paul home in 1936. The space is taped out on the stage floor and she tells us that this was the size of the family’s first home in North Dakota. Throughout the play, we look at these dimensions and imagine husband and wife, his parents and brothers, a couple dozen chickens and a cow all living in this dirt-floor hovel. Always, there is the suffocating presence of others with no privacy. It boggles the mind.
LaZebnik — whose work is consistently well tuned to the ear and to the heart — draws out the humor, pathos and the amazing drama that exists in Rachel’s mundane life on the prairie.
We come to appreciate that the astonishing thing was not so much that Rachel gave birth to children in these conditions, but that they survived to adulthood. We see in Fuglei’s face the helpless fear that Rachel felt when brutal nature destroys crops and home. But we also see the quick resolve to push on.
LaZebnik also expresses the freedom of the immense prairie sky, the tall grass and the endless vistas. There is humor and warmth here and survival is reckoned as much through peril as it is by the quiet nobility and humility of these good people.
Directed by Ellen Pressman, Fuglei is a briskly confident actor with a no-nonsense mien. Physically adroit in portraying other characters, she has a muscular and unsentimental approach that glimpses the survivor’s fortitude. Rachel is too honest and serious about life to shed many tears over. Fuglei’s hard-set jaw and square shoulders get that point across.
Fuglei also sings well, in simple and mournful tunes by composer Leslie Steinweiss, which weave through the play, almost as recitative.
“Rachel Calof” should be seen by anyone whose day is ruined when the Roku won’t work. You’ll survive.