A theatrical tribute to an adventurous playwright

Julie Hirsch Waxman lived with Mort Levy from 1992 until his death last year. She is presenting one of his plays in tribute. AKIRA SUWA / Staff
Julie Hirsch Waxman lived with Mort Levy from 1992 until his death last year. She is presenting one of his plays in tribute. AKIRA SUWA / Staff
Posted: June 01, 2012

Remember Mort Levy? The naturalist, karate man, former kitty-litter tester, and English prof who was so particular about words that he crafted his own obit to match his singular life — only to have us run the wrong picture when he died?

My column in September was part reparation, part appreciation of a maverick spirit. Who wouldn’t be charmed by a man who asked mourners to celebrate his passing "by hugging a child, helping a stranger, or remembering to say ‘I love you’ to someone special," then threatened to return to this world as a hawk?

Living without Levy has not been easy for his partner, Julie Hirsch Waxman. That’s part of the motivation behind the play she’s about to stage.

This winter she talked with friends about doing something to honor the 77 years of the man whose bucket list was down to one item: riding a biplane. A revival of Replacing Harry seemed like the right memorial.

The third of Levy’s four plays, Replacing Harry ran for a month back in 1997 at Second Stage on Sansom Street. Levy himself took the role of King Harry, the first American monarch after the Second Civil War, which he imagined being fought between liberals and conservatives.

In the three-act fantasy, written on a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, Levy takes pleasure in America’s increasingly multicultural face. His king is a practical old man, bald and white-bearded, who marries a young woman of color to secure the loyalty of black troops. Their marriage has not been consummated when he announces he is dying. Replacing Harry is a comedy and a love story by a playwright who embraced life even though he lost faith in government.

The curtain rises June 19 in the revival on the same stage. Waxman has spent the last three months "like a chicken with its head cut off," she said the other day with an infectious giggle. She’s been a social worker and real estate agent, but never a theatrical producer. Then again, her longtime companion was 52 when he started writing plays, so second — and third — acts are part of his legacy.

She was sitting in the kitchen of her townhouse off South Street, amid Japanese screens, Florentine masks, and a photo of a leaping kudu that Levy snapped on an African adventure.

Waxman this day was grappling with the conflicts a couple of the actors had discovered that required them to miss a show or two and the challenge posed by having a director, Ty Collins, who lives in Charleston, S.C., and won’t be flying north until 10 days before the premiere.

"He promises it will all work out," she said, with another laugh. She’s got spirit of her own.

Collins directed the play 15 years ago. He was the catalyst for the revival. By long distance he cast a replacement for Levy — an actor from Brigantine whose miles and tolls Waxman is paying. The rest of the troupe is splitting a modest honorarium.

Waxman and Collins came up with a production budget of about $8,000. Levy had left a little money — a rainy-day fund for travel — and Waxman thought he’d approve of her spending it on the king.

She learned about Kickstarter, a website that lets the public back causes, and to reach her $3,000 goal, Waxman wrote the copy herself, imagining Levy reading over her shoulder. "He was always saying, ‘Just put the words down.’?"

She recorded a simple message about Mort on the video. No script. Just from the heart. Then she harvested every e-mail she’d ever kept, soliciting support. As of Wednesday, 47 backers had stepped up to donate $3,356. "I’m stunned," she said. Ticket sales should pay for the rest of her costs. She’s calling her production company MortHawk.

"No one will ever be able to replace Mort," she said, her laughter giving way to a hitch in her lilting voice. "Each of us found the right person. We were able to give each other what was needed. It was totally unselfish, real love. There was no question. Neither of us ever felt unloved, uncared for. He was more quiet, Zen, centered. I’m the one who’s in your face. We balanced each other."

She recalled how they met in 1985, when Levy was looking for an apartment. The first place she showed him had been flooded from a water break. He met her again when trying to find his daughter a place. They’d see each other on the street. "One Friday he called, asked if I was free for dinner that night. He asked if I was adventurous." He took her to a Korean joint up on Broad Street in Logan. They moved in together in 1992.

"I’m not doing this for Mort alone," she said. "I’m doing this for me. Maybe in a metaphysical way this is keeping him alive."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or @danielrubin on Twitter.

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