Playwright uses dark humor to re-examine a deadly story

By Erin Spry

The account of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s arrest and death appears to be an open and shut case. The couple was convicted of espionage in 1950 and sentenced to death. That’s the story most people are told.

La Jolla resident Joan Beber wants to tell a different one.

Beber’s new play, “Ethel Sings,” is a dark comedy based on the true story of the Rosenbergs. They were a married couple accused of providing atomic information to the Soviet Union. After two years on death row, the Rosenbergs were put to death in the electric chair.

The play is mostly written from Ethel Rosenberg’s point of view, using a circus carnival as a metaphor for the whole situation. Although Beber admitted that what really happened is somewhat gloomy, she has used comedy to give her work a different perspective.

“The comedy is from the absurdness of the characters and how outrageous they are, how detached from reality they are,” said Beber.

Beber grew up with the story, as her father was a second cousin to Ethel Rosenberg.

“He visited the Rosenbergs in prison before they died, and he tried to help her,” said Beber. “He was not able to help her, and I think that was a big disappointment to him.”

According to Beber, the Rosenbergs were demonized by the public and never given a fair trial. The carnival metaphor points out the madness and spectacle of the miscarriage of justice and execution.

Beber wrote the play because she saw a great similarity between what happened to that unfortunate couple and what is going on in the world today.

“We rushed to judge people in the ‘50s,” she said. “I hope people will be open-minded and not rush to judge other people without understanding.”

Beber wasn’t trying to make a political statement, however.

“It’s not about who’s right or wrong, or whether the Rosenbergs are right or wrong,” she said. “It’s just an attempt to see a side of them that the public never got to see.”

Dale Morris, president and producer at 6th @ Penn Theatre, where the show will debut Oct. 4, said that Beber gave depth to the story by writing it as a dark comedy.

“She really made these people very human,” said Morris. “You learn a lot about Ethel Rosenberg and whether you think she’s guilty or not.”

Morris said when he first read the play, he saw the human drama in it and wanted to bring it to his theater.

“Human drama is what theater is all about,” he said. “That’s why people come to see plays.”

Morris said Beber is a very talented and a unique individual.

“I’d marry her if I could,” Morris said, laughing. “I love her to death.”

Beber’s talent comes from years of exploring many different art forms. The 70-year-old has written much of her life, and also worked a lot with visual art and poetry. Just three years ago, she achieved a master’s degree in theater/playwriting from USC. She has lived in La Jolla for 21 years, with four daughters grown up and out of the house.

Beber said she has traveled extensively, and writes better now than she did when she was younger.

“I’ve had a lot more experience,” she said. “I have a lot more to write about.”

Beber continues to write plays, and said she’ll keep writing them “forever.” She said she’s not the kind of person to sit around and do nothing.

“I feel lucky I have such a strong interest in something,” she said. “It’s kind of like what gets me up in the morning. ... I have a passion for it. It’s a wonderful outlet. It’s better than therapy.”

She hopes her play will curtail judgment of the Rosenbergs.

“Nobody is terrible,” she said. “We all have our good and bad. I hate seeing people demonizing other people.”

Morris is one of the people who got the message, especially about the Rosenbergs.

“I’ve always accepted their guilt, as in they did it and they got caught,” he said. “I think people will find this stage reading a very moving dramatic presentation that they will absolutely not expect.”

Beber said if she could get people to take anything from the play, it would be to try to find things that “unite us rather that divide us.”

She said what happened in the 1950s can’t happen again. “We got all paranoid and hysterical and I see us doing exactly the same thing today.”

“We’re blessed with a lot of freedom,” said Beber. “We have to be vigilant that that freedom isn’t taken away from us.”

Ethel Sings will be performed Oct. 4, 5 and 6 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, located at 3704 6th Ave. Call (619) 688-9210 or visit