BWW Review: Will There Be a Better Performance in 2020 Than Kayla Witoshynsky's in Innovocative Theatre's Production of Barbara Lebow's A SHAYNA MAIDEL?
There is a moment near the end of Act 1 of Barbara Lebow's powerful A SHAYNA MAIDEL that haunted me throughout the night. It's now the next day since first seeing the Innovocative Theatre show (presented in association with Stageworks), and I'm still going back to that instance. It's 1946, and a Jewish father, who had been in America during World War 2, is reading off the list of his European relatives, one after the other after the other. One of his daughters had been in Europe during the war, in a concentration camp, and she, having survived the ordeal, had recently arrived in New York City. She reads from a journal the fates of her relatives from Poland. In a somber tone, as her father recites the litany of names almost like a kaddish, she follows up with each of their fates: "Murdered," she would say after each name, plainly and factually, followed by the place, usually a concentration camp. It goes and on, with so many names, so many dead, and it quietly gives us an idea of the scope of human horrors that she--and millions of European Jews--endured. It boggles the mind as the names are read, names that include the girl's mother and daughter, almost an entire family wiped out. It is a scene, hushed in stillness, that reverberates the most with me--beautifully acted, beautifully written, beautifully directed.
It's morning, and that scene is still what's on my mind. That is the power of theatre and the power of Barbara Lebow's play. You can't shake it.
The Holocaust. Sisterhood. Survival. Family. The plot of A SHAYNA MAIDEL (which means "beautiful girl") isn't complicated: Two sisters, having been separated for sixteen years, are reunited after World War 2. One of them, Lusia, has survived a Nazi concentration camp, and the other, Rose, has been totally ingrained in American life, ignorant of the realities of the Holocaust horrors. The show centers on their burgeoning bond and the American's realization of what happened to their family, especially her mother.
There is a moment in Act 2 that almost rivals the Act 1 reading of the dead. Rose is given a letter from her mother, and when she reads it, it's such an inspiring moment, the girl finally realizing her heritage and her bond to her overseas family. She cries out, calling for her dead mama, and then does something unforgettable--using a pen, she writes a concentration camp number on her forearm, unifying herself with those who perished in the Holocaust. If the play ended there, I would have been more than satisfied. It would have left the audience with that indelible image--heartbreaking, shattering, like the ending of Cabaret. Unfortunately, the playwright didn't quite know where to end A SHAYNA MAIDEL, and so much of what followed the power of that Act 2 moment, including an overtly sentimental and unsatisfying dream reunion with long lost family members, seemed tacked on and heavy-handed. It was like the playwright sacrificed truth and substituted a perfect, thoughtful ending with a forced happy one. And happy endings aren't always happy, not if they're not believable.
The show will bring tears to your eyes, but it also may be confusing to some audience members--is this or that scene a flashback or a fantasy? And the writing is sometimes very staid, lacking in punch, with a cheapened ending that, to me, became atrociously manipulative.
In most Innovocative Theatre's past shows, there has always been a standout performance: Dawn Truax in Keely & Du, Marie-Claude Tremblay in Ugly Lies the Bone and Nick Hoop in Columbinus. Add A SHAYNA MAIDEL to the list. It contains one doozy of a performance, one of the best you'll see anywhere: Kayla Witoshynsky as Lusia. Ms. Witoshynsky has been in a few shows in our area, none that I have seen, so her work here was a revelation to me. Her performance pulsates with an abundance of heart and sorrow, love and loss. The show flips back and forth in time, and we see Lusia before and after being placed in a concentration camp, the real woman versus the lost soul. Before the war, we see the vibrancy of her face; afterwards, she looks gaunt, a ghost of her past self. She plays each moment beautifully--listening, reacting, struggling with her English and seemingly fluent with her Polish. Even when she doesn't speak, she's always in character, always in the moment, haunting and haunted. I hope other professional theatre companies in our area--Jobsite, American Stage, and freeFall--get a chance to see Ms. Witoshynsky's work here; she's so good that I expect to see her onstage quite a bit from now on.
There are other fine performances, even if they don't match the dramatic highs of Ms. Witoshynsky. Larry Corwin as Rose and Lusia's stubborn father brings a verve to the role; even when he's blustery, you really feel his love for his daughters mixed in with regret, loss and a deep sense of pride. Michele McCarty as Mama is all heart, the anchor of the show; we don't even need her to speak to feel her maternal love. Kristina Kourkoulos as Rose has some fine moments, but it's a difficult role. She's been in America for sixteen years, but you never sense either a New York or Polish accent in her; I know she's supposed to be fully Americanized, but her father's accent is so thick that it makes no sense that she doesn't even have the hint of one. But Ms. Kourkoulos is fabulous in the scene where Rose reads her mother's letter; she lets it all out here, and we can see the potential of a fine actress here.
Sunshine Hughes shows promise as the enthusiastic Hanna, but there's a jarring inauthenticity in the likable Thomas Brown's work as Lusia's husband, Duvid. He seems hesitant when holding his wife; you never feel his passion or his love for her, and you don't know if it's purposeful or not. And there is a supposed-to-be-romantic choreographed twirl in his first scene with her that rings so false that it should be made illegal.
The show offers strong direction by Staci Sabarsky. I particularly like the moments onstage where the actors take their time, whether setting a table or getting dressed. These long sequences may not be for everyone's tastes, but I appreciate them, like the five-minute pie-eating sequence in A Ghost Story that divided the critics. There's a real-time element to this that works in this particular show. So, when we see, for example, the unhurried setting of a table, each piece of silverware and each plate gently placed on the tablecloth, the show seems to create its own time. And it's that meditative quietness, the stillness of the everyday world of 1946, that succeeds here.
Jeannine Borzello's set design is functional and pleasing to the eye; you get a sense of the past without overdoing it. Director Sabarsky's sound design is inspired, including the sound of the cold wind or a mother's voice in the distance. Best of all in the tech department, William Glenn's lighting design makes sense. A SHAYNA MAIDEL contains literal flashbacks--where flashing lights, like distance explosions seen through windows, separate the past and the present. It's marvelously effective.
But in the end, the show belongs to Kayla Witoshynsky. It's only the second week in January, and yet I wonder: Will there be a better local performance this year? We have eleven and half months to find out. But judging from her stellar work here, I won't count on it.
A SHAYNA MAIDEL runs thru January 19th at Stageworks Theatre in Channelside.