A morbid question looms at the center of “The Soap Myth,” Jeff Cohen’s 2012 play about a Holocaust survivor, Holocaust denialism and more: Did the Nazis make soap from the bodies of Jewish people they murdered during the Holocaust?
The nationally touring play gets its Pittsburgh premiere Monday with a production starring famed actor Ed Asner.
Asner, who is 89, starred as Lou Grant in TV’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off “Lou Grant”; he’s also known for film roles like playing Santa Claus in “Elf” and Carl Frederickson in the animated hit “Up.
In “The Soap Myth,” the Emmy-winning actor plays Milton Saltzman, an elderly Holocaust survivor who tirelessly promotes the soap narrative. The story is supported by first-hand witnesses from the concentration camps but questioned by scholars who say hard evidence is lacking, and who fear that emphasizing something so shakily documented will aid Holocaust deniers. The play depicts Saltzman’s relationship with a young Jewish journalist seeking to learn the truth.
Asner says the play is about perseverance.
“I think it shows that it’s necessary for an individual to go beyond the challenges, to try to surmount whatever challenges, no matter how alone he may be,” he says, speaking by phone from New York City.
The play is staged here courtesy of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to conclude its inaugural Week of Remembrance. Like other shows in the long-running tour, the Pittsburgh performance is a “concert reading,” meaning the actors perform mostly seated, scripts in hand.
It’s directed by nationally known director Pamela Berlin and co-stars Liba Vaynberg as journalist Annie Blumberg; Ned Eisenberg as a Holocaust scholar; and Dee Pelletier in a dual role as both a Holocaust scholar and a Holocaust denier.
The play has been critically acclaimed. The New York Times called one production “thought-provoking and genuinely moving.”
The Holocaust Center is staging Week of Remembrance events in the wake of the deadly shootings here last October at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Squirrel Hill. In a statement, playwright Cohen said, “Holocaust education is more important than ever. I feel a renewed urgency to fight the tide of hatred using the weapons I possess – words and ideas.”
The single public performance here is on Monday at Rodef Shalom Sanctuary, in Oakland. The show is a fundraiser for the Holocaust Center. There is also a student matinee Tuesday.