Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Log Jam
A Pickle is based on a true story, and Wingert plays Doris Rubenstein looking back from her mid-60s to review the lessons learned when she entered her authentic kosher pickles in the Minnesota State Fair, only to have them disqualifiednot once, but two years in a row. While certainly disappointing, that probably doesn't sound like a great crisis in one's life, so some context may help.
Doris grew up in the 1950s in a Jewish neighborhood in Detroit, surrounded by Jews and Jewish life. For her, being Jewish was how the world was organized, not a designation that set her apart. She wound up living her adult life in Richfield, a Minneapolis suburb. There are Jews in Richfield, but no one would ever call it a Jewish community. Under conditions like these, the markers of one's culture become crucial. Those may be certain songs, song by certain performers, holiday rituals, wedding customs, maintaining a mental bibliography of high achievers in every field, from baseball players to movie stars to captains of industry, and perhaps the most universal of all cultural markers, food.
Wonderful Jewish food was a daily part of Doris's childhood, including the indescribably delicious kosher dill pickles made by Uncle Harvey. Harvey's pickle recipe died with him and, as an adult, Doris tried pickles wherever she could find them, hoping that one would have the same extraordinary flavor as Uncle Harvey's. Finally, she succeeded and was soon able to produce those delectable delicacies on her own, recapturing one of the joys of her childhood. It was only natural that she would enter them in the state fair where, after all, the best of all creative endeavors are displayed, judged and honored.
When her pickles were disqualified, Doris was crushed. When she found out why they were disqualified, she was incensed. Having lived in the Twin Cities, Doris absorbed a veneer of "Minnesota Nice," but at her core she retained the grit of a girl from Detroit, and she launched a crusade to right the wrongs being committed in the world of pickle judging. Her tale is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes infuriating, but always engaging. Soon A Pickle is no longer about pickles, but about inclusion, generosity, provincialism, bureaucracy and self-respect.
Early on we are given a foreshadowing of the many streams of life the play will embrace when Doris marches out from the wings with a box full of jars, each representing a facet of her multi-faceted life. The last jar, the pickle jar, jumpstarts the story, but just as when a character in a play displays a gun in act one you can expect the gun to be fired before the final curtain, it is natural to suspect that playwright Yarchun will bring back multiple jars before all is said and done.
A Pickle clocks in at just under an hour, and in truth, only about half of that is the pickle-judging debacle. At other times we learn about Doris' childhood, about her brush with celebrity when her crusade garners some media attention, and Doris even reveals the pickle recipe and the secret tips that make hers extra special. With the jars by which we sort our lives used as a frame, all of this holds together as a slight but nonetheless rewarding play, offering many laughs and opportunities to share in our hero's righteous indignation.
The play first came to life in a 2016 workshop at the Playwright's Center, then a popular entry in the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and given a berth at the 2018 Minnesota Jewish Humor Festival. I saw none of those prior productions, but it is inconceivable that anyone could create a more full-bodied depiction of Doris than Sally Wingert. She can hurl out wisecracks with the best of them, while reeling in our empathy for Doris. Her Doris is a bundle of energy, eager to share both her story and the resulting philosophy by which she lives her life.
Craig Johnson's direction provides A Pickle with an assured, steady pace, allowing for Doris' high-charged momentum without losing control. There is neither set nor costume to speak of, and what sound effects there are come by way of audience participation. If performed indoors, video backgrounds might be a nice addition to depict the places and people that populate the play, but in Wingert's assured hands it is easy enough to visualize every piece of Doris's story.
I regret that I cannot tell you to get your ticket for A Pickle as there are none to be had. Perhaps with luck, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company will bring this play back for an encore run. Its message is easy to absorb, delivered with brisk humor and a good-sized helping of affection. And, in the best of worlds, a post-pandemic production would allow for the complete experience by making wonderful, brine-cured kosher pickles available after the show.
A Pickle, produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, runs through June 19, 2021, at various Twin Cities locations. Tickets must be purchased in advance and will not be sold at the performance site. Audience members must wear a mask throughout the performance and are advised to bring a folding chair or blanket for lawn seating. All performances are sold out. For information call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwright: Deborah Yarchun; Director: Craig Johnson; Properties Design (Lisa Imbryk), Illustrator: Becca Hart; Stage Manager: Charles Fraser; Production Assistant: Samson Perry.
Cast: Sally Wingert (Doris)