On June 19, 1953, a couple was executed at the Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. The two were charged with conspiring against the United States and passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first two people executed for espionage during peacetime.
Their case remains controversial to this day, in part because there’s was a slight possibility of Ethel’s innocence.
Last week, on Aug. 10, the New York Times op-ed section published a letter from Michael and Robert Meeropol, Julius’ and Ethel’s sons, asking the government to “formally exonerate” their mother with respect to the recent testimony of their uncle, David Greenglass.
At 7 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater, Chautauqua Theater Company alum Megan Ketch will present Sing Sing, a one-woman show about Ethel Rosenberg, as part of the Chau-talk-One series. Ketch was a part of the conservatory in 2010, and played Lady Macbeth in CTC’s Macbeth.
While the Rosenbergs’ case is one of the most notorious in the history of the Cold War, Ketch was not interested in performing the “Wikipedia page on Ethel’s life,” she said.
“Those accounts exist, and they are easily accessible,” Ketch said. “I want to complicate the perception of her, of her character, of the women, of her heart, of her nature, of her internal life through her last days.”
Ketch first performed this piece during her second year at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she was a part of the 2011 graduating class. She played Ethel in Perestroika, the second part of Angels in America, during her second year.
“That experience of playing Ethel was so transformative for me as an actor, that I decided to keep looking into her and keep studying her,” Ketch said.
At the end of her third year, Ketch and her classmates were given a chance to develop their own work through the Freeplay Festival. Ketch presented a two-part piece with Todd Bartels, who played Julius Rosenberg. The piece was directed by David Chapman.
“Vivienne [Benesch, CTC artistic director] saw the show, was incredibly encouraging and said this character was fascinating on me and [suggested] we do it as a one-woman show,” Ketch said. “At that point, I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to tell her story without Julius because part of what draws me to the material is their incredible emotion and love.”
Ketch began to develop the piece and, during her research, came across a collection of letters compiled by the Rosenbergs’ sons: The Rosenberg Letters: A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
“The book published the entire correspondence between Ethel and Julius while they were incarcerated during their last days of their life,” Ketch said. “You cannot even believe the poetry in those letters. They were so sensual and moving and heart breaking. That spurred me on to read the transcripts from the trial and try to understand why, collectively, American history remembers [Ethel] as such an evil, brooding, villainous character. In fact, from her own account, I find her to be an incredibly warm, nurturing, motherly, open, normal relatable human being.”
In a letter dated Nov. 1, 1951, Ethel wrote to Julius: “Sweetheart dear, how very much I love you and want you at my side; and with how much longing do I recall the happy life we led and all the problems of parenthood we were so eagerly in the process of solving! The healthy growth and development of the children often gave us cause for grave concern, but they were also a source of so much genuine enjoyment and pleasure, that no difficulty was too great to dampen our enthusiasm and pride in them.”
Ketch’s piece takes place in Ethel’s cell on June 10, 1953.
“This is really a day in her life in which she remembers her life outside of prison,” she said.
Ketch also discovered Ethel was a very talented singer and, many times, through the accounts mentioned in her correspondence with Julius, Ketch said Julius could hear her sing to her inmates.
“That’s why the piece is called Sing Sing — because the prison is called Sing Sing and the piece has a lot of singing,” Ketch said.
From the time Ketch first discovered Ethel, each day has been a “series of experiments to try and capture her voice and body.”
“I hope the audience feels compassion for her and they reflect on how, as Americans, we forge identities. I will feel like my intentions for making the piece will be realized if people [gain a] broader and deeper view on her character,” Ketch said. “You will know, watching the piece, that I believe she was innocent.”