Shayna Maidel, A

   At the TimeLine Theatre

       By Dan Zeff


Chicago—When Barbara Lebow’s drama “A Shayna Maidel” opened in 1985, the Holocaust was still largely a living memory. Now, a third of a century later, the play inevitably has lost some of its historical immediacy, but it remains a superb family drama, enhanced by a spot-on revival at the TimeLine Theatre.

          The play is set in Brooklyn in 1946. It basically recounts what happens when the two Weiss sisters reunite after years of separation because of the Holocaust. Rose Weiss and her father Mordecai left Poland in the 1930’s when Rose was four years old and settled in New York City. Left behind were older sister Lusia and her mother. The mother died in the Holocaust but Lusia survived and now has been brought to the United States by her father. The play traces the relationship between Rose and Lusia as it advances from initial wariness and uncertainty.

          The sisters have lived in different worlds since childhood, Lusia enduring the horrors of the Holocaust while Rose has become Americanized, her Jewish roots submerged by her assimilation into the New World with virtually no memory of her European Jewish childhood. The story unfolds in a series of scenes that shift from postwar Brooklyn to flashback scenes of family life back in Poland. The play recounts how Lusia and Rose gradually close the personal gap that had separated them for most of their lifetimes.

Photo by Lara Goetsch.

          In an understated high-risk scene dramatically, the father and Lusia compare names they have accumulated in notebooks trying to trace the fates of family and friends caught up in the destruction of the Holocaust. The father reads off one name after another from his little book and Lusia responds with the results of her investigations. Nearly the entire list died in concentration camps or simply disappeared, including close members of the Weiss family. The almost matter-of-fact exchange of names between father and daughter only underscores their pain and sense of loss.

          The Holocaust casts its dark shadow over the family but there are no grim descriptive scenes in the death camps. Lusia hints at the abominations of the camps but the playwright does not delve into the environment of violence and death that marked the camps. The story may be set against a horrific background, but it triumphs as an intimate and absorbing family drama mostly acted within the walls of Rose’s Brooklyn apartment.

          Perhaps the most striking image in the play is Lusia’s first entrance, framed in Rose’s apartment door for the first time as she is about to launch a new life built on the ashes of the old one. Emily Berman steps through the doorway, slender, pale, and severe looking, in striking physical contrast to Bri Sudia’s pure Americanized Rose. A first look at Berman’s Lusia says everything the audience needs to know about the character’s past suffering and present uncertainty. Berman, honest and credible. doesn’t act Lusia, she inhabits the woman’s heart and soul.

          Bri Sudia never disappoints a Chicagoland audience, whether she stars in a musical, Shakespeare, or Jane Austen. Her Rose mostly reacts to Lusia but every change of facial expression or body language helps build her character. In one high risk scene late in the play, Rose breaks down in a burst of emotionalism that with some performers might be a bit over the top.  Sudia nails the scene. Those tears glistening in her eyes are genuine  (Sudia leaves the production October 21 to be replaced by Emily Glick).

                       Photo by Lara Goetsch.

          The supporting cast is without flaw. Charles Stransky is superb as the father, a tyrannical Old World patriarch who internally carries his own burdens dating back to the 1930’s when he left his wife and Lusia behind in Poland, taking only Rose with him to America. Carin Schapiro Silkaitis exudes warmth and humor as the selfless mother. Sarah Wisterman has some fine cameo appearances as Lusia’s delightful high-energy but doomed friend Hanna. Alex Stein is excellent as Duvid, Lusia’s young husband who has his own dramatic story to tell.

          Whenever there is a production this sensitive and moving, the audience can look to the director for commendation. Vanessa Stalling gets the props for orchestrating a staging that clearly presents a narrative that switches back and forth in time and place. There is no emotional manipulation in Stallings’ staging but plenty of truth and honesty. The second act does lurch a bit in reaching repeated emotional climaxes, but that’s on the author and not the director.

          The production profits from Collette Pollard’s highly detailed three-room Brooklyn apartment, comfortable enough to rent out after the show ends its run. Samantha Jones sets the period tone with her 1940’s costume styles. Rachel Levy designed the lighting and Jeffrey Levin the sound. Elise Kauzlaric, credited as “dialect designer,” guides Berman through her dual broken English and unaccented English, depending on the language Lusia is speaking. And Bri Sudia’s Brooklyn accent seemed spot on.

          “A Shayna Maidel” has its historical resonances, but above all it is a story of a family coming together to overcome chilling obstacles that would defeat less resilient characters. The play has had a long life in regional theaters as well as a long run off Broadway. Its success is easily understood. It connects with audiences of all ethnic and religious persuasions with its humanity. The play’s title is Yiddish for “Beautiful girl,” a term used a couple of times as a fitting grace note to a stirring drama.

                             The show gets a rating of

          “A Shayna Maidel” runs through November 4 at the TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $54. Call 773 281 8463 ext. 6 or visit timelinetheatre.com.

          Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.                August 2018

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