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At 86, Montreal playwright takes her final bow

Aviva Ravel stands with the more than 25 plays she’s written over the years, among them My Rumanian Cousin, playing Aug. 18 at the Eleanor London Côte St. Luc Public Library HEATHER SOLOMON PHOTO

Aviva Ravel thought she’d retire from the stage in 2001 when, newly married at 71 to American Al Fleitman, she moved to Pennsylvania.

The Eleanor London Côte St. Luc Public Library threw her a party, decorating the walls outside the Greenspon Auditorium with posters from the performance play readings she’d directed there, including 25 of her own scripts.

“I loved doing this because I had the chance to get into the souls of all the great playwrights of the world,” she says. Baring her own soul in the scripts she wrote herself was how she worked her way into the hearts of Montrealers.

When Ravel arrived in the States, more audiences were waiting for her and thoughts of retirement faded. She intermittently returned here to direct both in English and in Hebrew, a language that she instituted in Montreal theatre in 1998 with readings at the Jewish Public Library.

Her ease in Hebrew comes from the kibbutz where she and her late husband, Nahum Ravel, lived for a dozen years and where two of their four children were born.

This beloved Montreal playwright also built her name touring her original comedies and dramas with the travelling troupe she founded, Cameo Productions.

Most of her plays have Jewish themes or connections, like Dispossessed, which was mainstaged at the Saidye Bronfman Centre (now the Segal Theatre), about a Jewish immigrant navigating sweatshop oppression in 1930s Montreal.

At 7 p.m. on Aug. 18, the Greenspon Auditorium, 5801 Cavendish Blvd., will bring down the curtain on the last production featuring Ravel’s hands-on involvement with the stage. It’s one of her greatest hits, My Rumanian Cousin, a comedy that made its debut in 1988.

The 75-minute comedy will be performed script-in-hand but with movement, assistant-directed by Stephen Orlov. The cast is a quartet of popular local actors who are mostly veterans of Ravel plays.

Sam Stein as Max plays a man reluctant to retire and give up the respect he’s gleaned as a store owner. He previously starred in Ravel’s The Courting of Sally Schwartz and recently wowed audiences in The Producers at the Segal Theatre.

Giselle Rucker plays Max’s wife, Ethel, who aims to talk her spouse into a life of leisure and travel.

The couple carries on a tug-of-war, affected by the arrival of Ethel’s flamboyant, man-hunting cousin, Clara (Bena Singer, who originated the role). Clara sets her cap for store manager Sam (Nat Rabinowitz) and plays peacemaker between her cousins with wily good humour.

My Rumanian Cousin was my first hit. People loved the characters with all their flaws. They were natural,” Ravel says.

That the turn of events is all funnelled through laughter makes this Ravel play the delight that kept audiences coming back for more in 1991 when it ran for six months at La Diligence dinner-theatre.

James Douglas is Ravel’s ever-faithful technician. “He toured Dance Like a Butterfly with me all across Canada,” she says with appreciation.

Though her plays will surely remain popular in the Canadian (and now the American) repertoire, Ravel’s energy in her late 80s isn’t what it used to be. She’s dialled down her intense writing schedule to encompass short poems and stories, collections of which are to be published and added to her already published (Playwrights Guild of Canada) roster of award-winning plays from which she receives royalties from as far away as Australia.

Those theatres catering to young audiences also keep her plays for youth at the top of their lists, as they cover biblical themes, Jewish holidays and topics like bullying that have made theatre important and accessible to new generations.

As a PhD, she’s also taught English, drama and Canadian literature at Concordia and McGill universities. It’s hard to think of Ravel not being behind the scenes anymore. Surely she deserves a party. Tickets are at 514-485-6900.