Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through Nov. 5
Phone: 773-281-8463, ext. 6
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Barbara Lebow’s “A Shayna Maidel” has an old-fashioned structure and historical subject, but TimeLine Theatre Company’s inspired production directed by Vanessa Stalling infuses it with enough humor, heart, hope, and humanity to make it fresh and relevant today.
Written in 1984, the play premiered in New York in 1987 and focuses on a family of Holocaust survivors in 1946; however, the emotional complexities of their circumstances resemble those of many refugees today, especially people from countries where violence and oppression prevail.
The setting, except for flashbacks, is the small apartment of Rose Weiss (Bri Sudia) on New York’s Upper West Side. She has a job in the city and, having moved from the Brooklyn apartment where her father, Mordechai Weiss (Charles Stransky), still lives with family friends, is very happy to have her own furnished place. It is designed in impeccable detail by Collette Pollard and lit by Rachel K Levy, and part of the play’s power is TimeLine’s intimacy: We feel like we are right in the apartment with her, and it is even close to real New York size.
Rose, who has become Americanized (even changing her name), emigrated from Poland with her father before the war, when she was very young. But her Mama (Carin Schapiro Silkaltis) and older sister, Lusia (Emily Berman), who was ill, were left behind.
After an arguably unnecessary flashback of the birth of Mordechai as Cossacks are approaching, the play actually begins with him, now middle-aged, pounding on Rose’s door in the middle of the night.
He has important news: Lusia has survived the concentration camps and is coming to New York. She is going to live with Rose, or so he declares.
A stern, inflexible man who Stransky makes convincingly unpleasant, Mordechai arouses Rose’s anger and resentment, but she doesn’t want to disobey her father, and anyway, he won’t let her. She is scared, though, because Lusia is a total stranger to her. She doesn’t really remember her mother or childhood in Poland at all. Sudia and Stransky make the tensions between father and daughter palpable.
Even more compelling are the interactions between Rose and Lusia, now Lusia Weiss Pechenik, who arrives a few days earlier than expected. Berman gives a brilliant, beautifully expressive performance as a woman who not only has suffered an unbearable ordeal and lost everyone she loved including her child, but also has been separated from everything she knew and plopped down in a strange, foreign place where she doesn’t even speak the language. Sudia, moved by a desire to help coupled with not knowing how and survivor’s guilt, overcompensates by being excessively animated, talking a mile a minute, and encouraging Lusia to dress and behave more like an American.
But Lusia has more important things on her mind. She’s desperate to find out if her husband, Duvid Pechenik (Alex Stein), survived and made it to New York. She also hates Morechai, who tries hard to establish a relationship with her by taking her to restaurants and showing her personal treasures, such as old photos. He even shares a list of relatives in the Old Country, but as he does, she ticks off each one’s fate from her own list, and all are dead or missing. His efforts fall on deaf ears because Lusia’s rage stems from a fatal, selfish mistake he made in the past that can’t be undone. If Rose is disturbed by the attention her father lavishes on Lusia, the revelation of what he did changes that.
As Lusia gets used to her new surroundings and sister, Berman subtly shows us the contrasts between the frightened woman in the dowdy clothes she brought with her (costumes by Samantha C. Jones) and the bright young woman she was before the war, as well as the one she can be again as she comes out of her shell with Rose’s help. Whenever she switches to Yiddish (indicated for us with a few words or sentence, then a return to English)–for a fantasy sequence with Duvid or a childhood scene with her best friend Hanna (Sarah Wisterman)–she comes vibrantly to life before our eyes.
The contrasts between past and present, real and imagined, heighten the play’s poignancy, too. We see Hanna as the lively, mischievous playmate Lusia recalls and as the emaciated, dying young woman in the concentration camp. Duvid appears not only as the loving, teasing husband of Lusia’s dreams but also as the older, tired man who has been through a lot. Saddest of all in some ways is a family gathering for Lusia’s wedding, a gathering that never took place.
But Lebow does end “A Shayna Maidel”–which means “a pretty girl” and refers to both Mama and Rosa, and maybe Lusia too—on a positive note. Improbably, Lusia and Duvid are reunited, Lusia and Rose grow closer, and reconciliation even is possible between Mordechai and his daughters. What makes the play worth seeing is the complicated way these very human characters achieve all this.