Since Dorothy Silver’s passing July 17, there has been a steady stream of heartfelt posted and printed testimonials from those whose lives she touched upon arriving in Cleveland in 1955 with her brilliant husband and favorite scene partner, Reuben, who died in 2014.
Understandably, so many are from those who witnessed a performance or two that was truly transportive.
As a theater critic these past 20 years, I shared with them the pleasure and privilege of watching Dorothy perform. From the best seat in the house – sixth row center – I witnessed the abundant talent that gave way to what appeared to be effortless performance, for I never once spied the immense effort, purposeful calculation or honed craft behind it. Dorothy’s intelligent eyes were always focused, always lost in the world of the play, and always true to the character being performed. I can’t recall a performance that didn’t end with a standing ovation.
But many of the testimonials come from colleagues she had mentored while taking on the artistic leadership of Cleveland’s historic Karamu Theatre from the mid-1950s to the 1970s.
So many others are from those whose careers she helped launch and shape during the 12 years she headed the performing and visual arts department at the old Jewish Community Center in Cleveland Heights.
Most are from the local actors, directors and crews she had performed with over these many years, including those involved in what was likely her final performance – recorded in September 2020, when Dorothy was 91 – as part of Dobama Theatre’s “The Soliloquy Project.”
“The wrinkles,” she said, with typical modesty upon seeing the recorded performance, “they do all the work. They are well-earned, those wrinkles. I worked hard for them.”
Yes, she did.
As an occasional actor, I had the opportunity to share the stage with Dorothy, most recently in the Cleveland Play House production of “Yentl,” and watched the work being done. Dorothy gave the pre-show curtain speech about turning off cellphones and unwrapping candy, in Yiddish, which was then translated into English – with great creative license – by actor and improvisation master Marc Moritz. There’s me, fourth Jew from the left, in awe and with an even better seat from which to watch Dorothy on stage. I was so mesmerized by her preparation and performance that, most nights, I came close to missing my cues because I was busy watching Cleveland’s most veteran and venerated actress just a few feet away.
Thirty years earlier, I was first introduced to Dorothy at my son’s bris. Reuben and I were colleagues at Cleveland State University, and he gladly accepted my invitation to come with Dorothy to my home and attend. From the best seat in my house, I saw the two of them weep openly and laugh joyfully throughout the ritual. And in the years that followed, every encounter with Dorothy started with, “How’s the boy?” and would not move forward until I had given her a full and detailed report.
A few years earlier, when I first came to Cleveland, I had read about this force of nature named Dorothy Silver in a theater review written by freelance critic Benjamin Gleisser for the Cleveland Jewish News. In it he wrote: “I would pay to see her read the Cleveland Heights phone book.”
I couldn’t agree more.
But since reading these recent testimonials, it is clear that her greatest impact in her 92 years was not on the audiences she enthralled while on stage, but on those she worked with while off-stage. And their families. I think that her genuine interest in others, her compassion and the relationships she forged with fellow theater artists will serve as her greatest legacy.