BWW Review: Intensely, Mesmerizing EIGHT NIGHTS Features A Tour de Force From Tessa Auberjonois
Antaeus Theatre Company's stunning world premiere of Jennifer Maisel's EIGHT NIGHTS vividly details the life of Holocaust survivor Rebecca Blum from the day she arrives to New York City at age 19, through significant life milestones, to becoming a great-grandmother at age 86. And all this accomplished rather smoothly with increasing intensity and gravitas in less than two hours without an intermission! Developed in Antaeus Playwrights Lab, the play's title EIGHT NIGHTS, I believe, refers to the eight individual nights/scenes during Chanukah over a period of 67 years, spanning four generations. Or, more literally, the eight-day, Jewish wintertime festival of lights.
Emily Chase ever so tightly directs her very talented ensemble as they tackle multiple roles. Ample credit deservedly goes to costume designer Alex Jaeger for his appropriate outfits for the many decades of styles and ladies' coifs.
The first night features Arye Gross as Rebecca's father Erich welcoming the very frightened teenager into their lower east side apartment. Gross imbues his paternal role with such care, sensitivity, charm and patience. Easy to envision Gross' Erich as the dream father figure for everyone. With hardly any words from the traumatized Rebecca, Gross' Erich's pleas play like a plaintive, unanswered monologue. Neighbor's son Aaron (a most charismatic Josh Zuckerman) arrives with groceries and homemade goodies from his mom. Zoe Yale plays the younger Rebecca with Tessa Auberjonois sitting quietly on the side, as a flashbacked Rebecca's mother with baby Rebecca in her arms. As the years go by, Yale's Rebecca gains more confidence and personality, now as the wife of Aaron.
A beyond-all-odds reunion, between Rebecca and the actual soldier who liberated her from Dachau, awakens horrid nightmares not only for Rebecca, but for the soldier Benjamin. Christopher Watson clearly manages to exhibit, simply through his facial expressions and body language, the horrors he keeps seeing. Karen Malina White, as Arlene, the sassy, loving wife of Benjamin, becomes the voice of reason amidst all the outbursts. White's Arlene's calm, in control, and feisty, too.
As the decades roll, Auberjonois takes over the role of Rebecca, while Yale becomes Rebecca's Americanized, more assured daughter Amy, and then, later, granddaughter Nina.
When Nina brings home Steve (a puppy-eager Devin Kawaoka) to meet Mom (now essayed by Auberjonois), sparks unintentionally fly. It seems one of the reasons Steve, a Japanese-American documentary filmmaker, wants to meet Rebecca is to interview her on her experience surviving Auschwitz, to juxtapose her memories with those of his family's time in the internment camps.
The actual interview Rebecca finally agrees to do is cleverly edited start-and-stop to include Rebecca's important responses, and vital questions unanswered. This is where Tessa Auberjonois SHINES! Her candid, still partly guarded responses as Rebecca punches your gut with her deep, deep, wrenching pain. A master class in acting. I think I held my breath for Aubernojois's entire interview scene. Brava, Ms. Auberjonois!!! She also must be applauded on believable portraying the various ages of Rebecca without resorting to distracting caricature. Wow!
As usual, technical elements at Antaeus' top notch. Scenic designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr. with props master David Saewart constructed a wonderfully, detailed lower east side New York apartment complete with bathtub/dining table in the living room. Kudos also go to sound designer Jeff Gardner, lighting designer Karyn D. Lawrence, projection designer Adam R. Macias, and dialect coach Lauren Lovett.
Do go spend EIGHT NIGHTS at Antaeus. So thought-provoking.