Playwright Andrea Gordon (Photo/Courtesy)
Playwright Andrea Gordon (Photo/Courtesy)

‘Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District’: Family secrets drive play premiering this month in S.F.

Two estranged sisters meet for the first time in 10 years to sort through their dead mother’s belongings. They come across letters, trinkets and scarves. They find costumes, music scores and annotated librettos, all remnants of their mother’s career as an opera singer.

And they discover family secrets that set them on a path to forgiving each other.

“Forgiveness is probably the greatest act of kindness we can give one another,” Oakland playwright Andrea Gordon said about her new work, “Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District,” which is set to premiere Jan. 17 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and run through Jan. 28.

Gordon, 67, calls the drama her most personal yet. It’s semi-autobiographical and reflects her own experience in the late 1970s of losing her mother, opera singer Leona Gordon, and sifting through her possessions with her only sibling, older sister Marcia Martin.

“You know how when people go home for holidays, they regress in a certain way? Sometimes if you have siblings, you’ll end up rehashing old stuff that you never actually worked through,” Gordon said. “That’s a large part of this play.”

Gordon has directed and produced more than 75 shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, including at the Marin Theatre Company and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. She first wrote a version of “Miriam and Esther” in the 1990s but tucked it away until the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s when she took a course on realizing goals and living authentically taught by a business coach. She emerged creatively inspired and decided to embrace the words of ancient Jewish scholar Hillel: “If not now, when?”

It’s easy to infer from the characters’ names in the title that the play has Jewish threads, but Gordon labels the work “half-Jewish” because “it’s about the experience, in part, of being someone whose faith is not clear.” (As for the reference to the Diamond District, Gordon declined to explain it so as not to spoil the plot.)

Growing up in the East Bay with a Lutheran mother and Jewish father, late concert pianist Marcus Gordon, she and her sister attended religious school both at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El and at a San Francisco church. “We celebrated every holiday to appease the grandparents,” Gordon said. “Our own relationship to organized religion was fractured at best, but we took the important parts to heart.”

Gordon’s father predeceased her mother, who remarried another Jewish man — one with many family members who were murdered during the Holocaust and others who were left with permanent psychological scars. The stepfather in “Miriam and Esther” has a similar background.

The play takes place in 2019, when Miriam and Esther meet at their stepfather’s New York condo 45 years after their mom’s death. He has now passed away as well. And with his widow preparing to sell the unit, the sisters must finally clean out their mother’s belongings.

In the play, Miriam is the matter-of-fact, business-oriented sister, while Esther is the artistic wild child. (Gordon sees herself as more of an Esther but said she and her sister contain aspects of both characters.) Esther is in her mid-60s and Miriam in her early 70s. “I wanted to write meaty parts for older women because there aren’t very many of them,” Gordon said.

She wrote the part of Miriam for Ellen Brooks, a local actor and director she’s known for decades who has performed extensively with Ross Valley Players in Marin. Bay Area actor, dancer and choreographer Janet Roitz, whom Gordon has also known for years, plays the role of Esther. Roitz has appeared onstage in New York and San Francisco, including at the American Conservatory Theater.

Ellen Brooks (left) and Janet Roitz (Photos/Courtesy)
Ellen Brooks (left) and Janet Roitz (Photos/Courtesy)

Others close to Gordon had a hand in shaping the play. Her nephew Sean Royce Martin, a Grammy-nominated audio engineer, digitized 78 rpm recordings of his grandfather Marcus Gordon playing Schumann, Bach and Chopin on the piano. That music underscores the production.

Aside from her work in theater, Gordon is a real estate agent. “I see people going through their parents’ stuff about 60 times a year,” she said. “There’s always something about it that is emotionally charged.”

That wasn’t the case for Gordon and her sister more than four decades ago. Still, Gordon was nervous to show her sibling the script. “I was absolutely dreading sending her a copy of the play because I was worried how she would react and how she would feel she had been depicted,” Gordon said.

Fortunately, Gordon’s concerns were unfounded. Her sister “loves the play,” the playwright said. “She’s completely supportive.”

“Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District”

Jan. 17-28 at Magic Theatre. Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, third floor, San Francisco. $30-$50. magictheatre.org/calendar/miriam-esther

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.