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Farewell to Rebecca Ritchie

Our lives were so enriched by knowing Rebecca Ritchie. The beloved local playwright, whose work reflected a wide range of interests—from Judaism to aging, to history, to her own battle with breast cancer—died after a 13-year battle with the disease on Friday, May 8, 2009. She was 60 years old.

Rebecca Ritchie, third from left, surrounded by her family.

I don’t remember when I first met Rebecca, but at a certain point it seemed as if she had always been there. She was a member of the Artie award committee during its early years, and wrote theater reviews for Artvoice for a while. She was the author of numerous plays, and I even acted in one of them, appearing in the two-hander Personal Exchange with Jeanmarie Lally, under the direction of Roz Cramer, at Daemen College, several years ago.

Rebecca encouraged other local playwrights, while she achieved her own success. She won two Artie awards in the Emanuel Fried New Play category for her plays The Crustacean Waltz (1998-1999) and for An Unorthodox Arrangement (1995-1996), and received two additional nominations for The Gratz Delusion (1993-1994) and for Memory Garden (2006-2007). An Unorthodox Arrangement was also honored as a winner of the Dorothy Silver Play Writing Competition of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Cleveland, and The Crustacean Waltz also won the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre’s Helen Mintz Award.

Her play, The Phoenix Cantata (written with Violet Fabian) was commissioned by the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, Inc., and acquired for the permanent collections of Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Library in Washington, D.C. Her play In the Beginning was included in Facing Forward, an anthology of one-act plays and monologues by women. Her plays have been included as part of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute Library Women Playwrights Archives at Ohio State University; excerpts of her work are included in Best Stage Scenes of 1997, Best Stage Monologues for Women 1998, and Best Monologues for Men 1998.

Rebecca received the 2008 Community Artist Award from the National Federation of Just Communities. Western New York Chapter, “for her plays concerning social justice and the female experience.” She was a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the International Center for Women Playwrights, and Polaris North Actors Workshop in Manhattan. For many years, she was a member of the Western New York Playwrights Workshop under the direction of her close friend, Emanuel “Manny” Fried. With Manny and Roz Cramer, and Manny’s brother Gerald Fried, she was co-founder of the Gerald Fried Theatre Company, which focused on plays about aging and provided opportunities for older actors; this group produced Rebecca’s Memory Garden, featuring Cramer and Fried.

Visiting the Ritchie home for shiva this week, I was reminded of Rebecca’s play, The Shiva Queen, a comedy about a woman who makes memorial arrangements for a living—the memory provided surprisingly little comfort, but seeing her impressive children did.

The Ritchie family generously provided me with those details of Rebecca’s career that I did not recall. They also provided me with copies of remarks that her husband, Stafford, and daughter, Glynis, made at her funeral on Monday.

Glynis recalled how her mother had loved the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Wicked, but in her vivid imagination had concocted an uplifting story about integrity, overcoming physical limitations, and friendship between women. She was horrified when she finally saw Wicked and realized its tale of self-interest and deceit. As Glynis observed, her mother “was optimistic that people would eventually be appreciated for the strength of their hearts.” Stafford’s remarks similarly reflected this optimism and positive outlook, revealing that Rebecca planned to attend their son Tom’s wedding in Larchmont this Saturday. Sadly, it was not to be.

All of us who knew Rebecca Ritchie will recall her smiling. She had a good word to say about nearly everyone—making the truly rare exceptions, expressed with dry understatement, all the more delicious. By day she was a healthcare attorney, and her family—husband Stafford, daughter Glynis, and sons Stafford and Tom—meant the world to her. In the theater community we will remember her for her loyalty friendship, her optimism, her honesty, and remarkable selflessness.

Glynis shared a story that summed it all up exquisitely, recalling an observation that her mother had recently made to the family, that what’s really most important in the end is kindness. “Through kindness,” said Glynis, “[her] art and actions inspire. I know that she will forever live on through all of us.”

I truly believe that she will.