Evelyn Orbach spent decades spotlighting seasoned and new dramatizations exploring ethnic aspects of issues, joys, history and assimilation.
Evelyn Orbach, who was at the helm of founding and developing the professional theater company that has staged more productions of The Diary of Anne Frank than any other theater in the world, died Dec. 4, 2020, from COVID-19. She was 88.
Orbach, longtime artistic director of the 31-year Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET), spent decades spotlighting seasoned and new dramatizations exploring ethnic aspects of issues, joys, history and assimilation.
Based in the Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, she attracted audiences beyond the religious designation of the company name by scheduling performances in schools and satellite venues years before JET established permanent headquarters in Walled Lake.
Orbach’s devotion to theater was instrumental in leading JET to become the longest continuously running Jewish theater company in North America, and she often used the stage as a platform to oppose discrimination and bullying.
Long-running initiatives for young people include Mean Girls by Maddee Sommers and I Was Just Kidding by Marshall Zweig. An updated version of Romeo and Juliet was planned after 9/11 to promote understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities.
“I didn’t have a mother-in-law; I had a theater-in-law,” asserted son-in-law Ed Fernandez, who learned about real dramatic issues brought into the home. When farmworkers were striking, for instance, Orbach joined the protest by not serving grapes to family or guests and letting them know why.
Sometimes, Orbach played out her own talents first demonstrated in New York, where she grew up honing her skills at the High School of Performing Arts and Brooklyn College. Multiple stage experiences were rekindled as she directed a run of Arthur Miller’s The Price and cast herself in Fiddler on the Roof.
“We ask audiences to think about identifying with the characters, finding elements that are redundant, offering something that was missing, deciding the way the whole play works and just reacting to what they have seen,” she told the JN in 2001.
After being memorialized at private religious services confined to immediate family on the Friday of her death, Orbach was remembered the next evening during a Zoom meeting hosted by her four children: Lila Lazarus, Sharon Quarters, Judy Chamberlin and Richard Orbach.
Members of her extended family, friends and colleagues – some 90 people – voiced their love and admiration for the woman so important to their lives offstage. Laughter and tears punctuated remembrances from as far away as Germany and France.
Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel introduced the discussion and spoke of personal recollections shared with his wife, Susan, who often had enjoyed gatherings at the Orbach home.
“My mother had a great energy like no other and an ability to multi-task,” said Lazarus, who followed in her mother’s professional direction with a public career as a broadcast journalist and corporate spokesperson.
“Both my mom and dad (the late Cantor Harold Orbach) taught us that God was the Creator, and to follow that, people should be creative as well. My mom also showed us how to [enact the Jewish values of being] forgiving and resilient.”
Creativity was every day for Evelyn Orbach and those whose careers she encouraged. Part of that was bringing a variety of presentations to audiences, such as Ira Levin’s Cantorial, Diane Samuel’s Kindertransport and Side by Side by Sondheim. Her boost of locally based playwrights featured scripts by Kitty Dubin, a theater lecturer at Oakland University.
“I met Evelyn in 1985, when she acted in my first-produced play, Mirrors, at the State Fair Theatre in Detroit,” Dubin said. “At that time, she shared a dream she had with me – to start a Jewish theater. Four years later, she did just that.
“In 1989, I had a play, The Last Resort, produced in Texas. The Detroit News reviewed it, and Evelyn included that play in JET’s first full season in 1990. She went on to produce other plays I wrote, including Change of Life and The Day We Met.
“Evie had enormous faith in me as a playwright when I was just starting out. Her faith in me made me believe in myself, and I will be forever grateful to her for that. She was a dynamo who could make things happen, a can-do person who, in spite of what the obstacles were, always plowed ahead.”
Henrietta Hermelin Weinberg and Mary Lou Zieve (a continuing board member) got to know Orbach through associations with Michigan theater companies and broadcast programming. They were glad to offer their artistic suggestions and business introductions to establish JET and remained impressed by Orbach’s perseverance – both artistically and in seeking out private donors and public grant providers, first to launch and later to supplement ticket prices.
“Evelyn had tenacity and vision,” said Weinberg, who had worked in New York before moving back to her hometown and starring in JET plays as well as other local productions. “She had a vision for the arts in the Jewish community and sometimes could be overwhelming. She got ahold of something and didn’t let go.”
A Mentor to Others
Orbach’s personality motivated young performers chosen to showcase their talents. One was Jaime Ray Newman, whose early acting experience at JET helped prepare her for work that went beyond theater and into television and film. She won an Oscar in 2019 for producing the Best Live Action Short Film.
“Evie was a powerhouse teacher, producer and director, and I credit her for giving me my first acting job at age 12 in JET’s second-ever play,” Newman emailed from her California home. “She believed in me as a young girl and proved that a career in the arts was 100 percent possible.
“My love of the theater and the life I’ve committed myself to is in large part due to Evie’s infectious rapture with the stage. I will remember her always. The Detroit [area] is a better [place] for having her talents shine there.”
Daniel Kahn, who appeared with Newman in the plays A Rosen by Any Other Name by Israel Horovitz and First Is Supper by Shelley Berman, went on to build an international career with his Painted Bird music group. He was cast in the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof staged in New York.
“There are few people in my life who have had as profound an impact on me as Evie,” Kahn wrote from Germany. “When I was 11, she saw me recite a poem at Temple Israel and asked me to audition at JET.
“For the first time, I found myself working under Evie’s caring direction and alongside professional actors. That experience and the relationships that grew from it completely changed my life’s trajectory.
“I gained a community of creative mentors, free spirits, wise artists, thoughtful craftspeople, working humanists and cultural warriors who continue to inspire me. I owe it all to Evie.”
Also grateful to Orbach is Christopher Bremer, JET executive director who was hired by Orbach for temporary responsibilities and later promoted. He anticipates an in-person memorial once the pandemic has been defeated and programming named in her honor.
“I met Evie on a Greek island, where she had come to do a play with artists and actors from all over the United States,” Bremer recalled. “She played a role in the chorus of a Greek tragedy.
“I started working at JET about a year later, and virtually every day, I think about the things I learned from her. She had respect for everybody and showed no fear. Evelyn taught me to have ambition, determination and courage.
“She chose plays with the guiding philosophy that evil should not win. She was a pro’s pro and championed the JET mission statement of producing theater according to the highest professional standards. This will always be the guiding principle of the institution she founded.”
Beyond the romance of captivating audiences during her active years in theater into 2009, Orbach’s retirement years brought some unstaged romance. On a cruise, she met Melvin Dalbow, who, at 90, converted to Judaism in honor of their marriage.
“Mel saw her on that cruise and asked her to dance,” Lazarus said. “They danced for three years.”
Evelyn Orbach is survived by four children and their spouses, Richard (Leda Meredith) Orbach, Sharon (Howard) Quarters, Judy (Paul) Chamberlin and Lila (Ed Fernandez) Lazarus; nine grandchildren; four-great grandchildren; and sister Anita Blank.