Jewish, feminist themes explored in new play about Greta Garbo


A new musical, “Coming Attraction,” a semi-fictionalized look at the working relationship between actress Greta Garbo and her photographer, Ruth Harriet Louise, née Goldstein, will be performed as a live reading at The Wilbury Theatre Group on Jan. 28. 


In a recent interview, playwright Gray Horan, who is Garbo’s grandniece, explained that her play “rediscovers an important Jewish woman who contributed to the iconography of [1920s] Hollywood.” 

Louise was the only female studio photographer in Hollywood history, and she is estimated to have taken more than 100,000 photos during her time at MGM Studios. Horan said Louise and Garbo “created the iconography of the new, modern woman,” while author Robert Dance wrote that “Louise created Garbo’s face. She took Garbo from a pretty, frizzy-haired girl who was a bit gauche to the great siren of the 20th century. Others simply refined Louise’s work.” 

Horan’s play looks into Louise’s background, and features the conflict between Louise’s first-wave feminism and the conservative values of her father, a London-born rabbi. To highlight this conflict, Louise’s big musical number is set at the bimah of her father’s synagogue, Temple Anshe Emeth, in Brunswick, New Jersey.

The play’s treatment of the Louise/Garbo partnership describes how the pair created the imagery of then-modern feminism, and it opens the door to questions of gender, sexuality and politics that foreshadow today’s debates on the same topics. The play ends with Louise speaking about the rise of Nazism, providing another connection to current events.

Horan’s connection to Garbo led her to learn about Louise’s accomplishments and inspired the writing of “Coming Attraction.” Writing the play was made possible by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and Horan, a Rhode Islander since 2002, expressed her thanks for that gift.

Horan’s sources in researching Louise’s life included the New York Historical Society, the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey, and the Rosenbach Museum & Library, in Philadelphia. The play’s lyrics were written by Brown University graduate Sami Horneff, and its music was written by Boston Conservatory graduate Amanda D’Archangelis. Meredith Healy is the director of the performance at the Wilbury. 

The reading will take place on Monday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. at the Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, Providence. Admission to the reading is free, but donations to the Wilbury are welcome. Since “Coming Attraction” is a work in progress, the audience is invited to join in a “talk-back” session following the performance.

A selection of Louise’s photos will be displayed onsite, thanks to the generosity of Providence Picture Frame.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE ( writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.