'A Shayna Maidel': Family Lost and Found

◊◊◊◊◊ out of five.  Mature war themes.  2 hours 30 minutes, plus intermission.

Playwright Barbara Lebow's A Shayna Maidel is a sneaky play.  Not sneaky in a negative way, though, and far from it.  Rather, it sneaks up on you and delights, saddens and provokes you in the most unassuming way.  That I, and several members of the opening night audience, were reduced to tears and left feeling powerfully moved and uplifted was just one of this riveting production's pleasant surprises.  Rep Stage's production, playing in the HCC Black Box Theatre, and under the direction of Peg Denithorne, is a triumph on all levels.

Ms. Denithorne has crafted a beautifully mesmerizing work that handily transports its audience to a time long past, but where the wounds still feel fresh, and the journey back to reality is an emotionally satisfying one.  You will not leave this intimate space unmoved or unchanged.  It is days later, and images and scenes continue to swirl in and out of my subconscious.  Her direction is simple, yet elegant, fragile, yet powerfully strong.  Best of all, it is free of the maudlin, free of the melodrama, free of excess baggage.  In lesser hands, overplaying would rule the play and its impact diminished.  Instead, Denithorne has her completely excellent company play it for real.  Interestingly, the play features several dream/fantasy sequences, and all revel in their sheer theatricality, yet all remain thoughtfully grounded.  The result is smooth transitions between the thrilling heightened reality and the thrilling moments of actual reality.   

This brilliantly subtle take on a simple moving story about a family torn apart by war and the Holocaust maximizes its impact.  Here, if you will, is a sort of post script to The Diary of Anne Frank or perhaps a focus on a surviving family from Schindler's List.  The Weiss' of Brooklyn have moved on with their lives; the youngest daughter, Rose, is as American as a girl can get.  She has somewhat distanced herself from her overbearing father, who clings to the traditions of his Jewish faith.  Theirs is an almost love-hate relationship, though it is clear that at the very least, Rose has deep respect for the man.  Rose's mother and sister, Lucia, were left behind in Poland due to scarlet fever.  The result being two completely different families are created from one.  As the ravages of the Holocaust systematically wipe out most of their friends and relatives, they hold steadfast to the hope for reunion.  Now, years later, Lucia has come to America with news of family, the burden of having lost her only really known parent, and the slimmest hope of reuniting with her own husband.  The play focuses on her assimilation and the rejoining of a broken family.  A Shayna Maidel (Yiddish for "A Pretty Girl") is a loving tribute to the strength and courage of millions of the displaced and disenfranchised.  Hope goes hand in hand with sorrow; love and respect vie with anger and fear for control.  Ultimately, the good triumphs over the bad, and lives begin to mend.  A beautiful message, lovingly delivered.

Director Denithorne has been given the great gift of an amazing technical team and a truly extraordinary company of actors.  Award-winning designer James Kronzer has created a setting that, like the play, is very simple and straight forward on the surface, but offers much more complex capabilities.  The walls made of scrim and tri-leveled platforms allow for a realistic playing space which easily transitions into creative fantasy spaces.  A hallway can, with a slight change in lighting, become the miles and years of distance between a daughter and the mother she barely remembers.  A bedroom can transform instantly into a war ravaged abandoned cottage.  Jason Arnold's theatrical lighting aids in these transitions and the rich colors of the fantasy sequences are easily differentiated from the almost cold reality of the Brooklyn apartment.  Chas Marsh's excellent sound design gives a chilling, ethereal voice to fond memories and terrifying nightmares.  And vocal coach BettyAnn Lesseberg-Lange has worked a theatrical miracle with a wide array of accents for the actors, both authentic in sound and crystal clear in delivery. 

The cast, to a person, is absolutely superb, from the first jarring scene of a birth during the Cossack invasion of Poland to the quietly moving final moments.  Rebecca Ellis, as Hanna, best childhood friend to Lucia, plays both strong/stalwart loyalty and tragic resignation to fate with equal depth and dignity.  Her role is a small but important one and Ms. Ellis makes a poignant contribution to the evening.  Similarly, Susan Rome brings strength and warmth to the role of the girls' Mama.  Her performance is an exquisite example of how less is more.  The part could easily have lapsed into melodrama, but instead Ms. Rome lets the harsh reality of the situation speak for itself.  One of her most heartfelt scenes is one where she doesn't even speak, but rather gathers artifacts of her life together in hope that they reach the rest of her family in America some day; that moment is full of quiet dignity and profound feeling and is exemplary of the quality of her performance.

Duvid, Lucia's lost husband, is evocatively played by Timothy Andres Pabon, a young local actor who gets more impressive with each diverse role he takes on.  Mr. Pabon has the added layer of playing his character in a memory, a fantasy and reality.  And while each time he is grounded in reality, the deliciously subtle nuances between the three offer a terrific series of variations on a theme.  Being able to reconcile the "dream Duvid" and the "real Duvid" is a delight for both the actor and his audience.  Dan Manning, is the blustery and imperious father, Mordechai, and manages to evoke fear and warmth.  His bravado and no-nonsense posturing are both awesome and sad.  It is apparent in this interpretation that the man holds on desperately to things he knows and a past that isn't coming back as a way to combat change and a growing chasm between himself hand his daughters.  Still, it is with subtlety that Manning infuses a noticeable smidge of warmth to let us know that the man comes from a place of love. 

The two sisters at the center of this drama, Rose and Lucia, are played brilliantly by Colleen Delany and Lee Mikeska Gardner respectively.  And each couldn't play their roles more differently. Ms. Delany gives Rose a distinctly American woman exuberance to her performance.  She is opinionated, brash and resolutely modern in her thinking.  Sure, her Rose knows when to temper things with her father, but she is clearly a girl on the cusp of true independence.  In a lighter moment, Delany gives us a Rose with a childlike impudence upon finding out that not only will her long lost sister be moving in with her, but Rose will be taking the sofa while her guest will have the bedroom!  Played for a gentle laugh rather than an annoying rant, Delany puts us squarely on her side.  Naturally, after an awkward adjustment period, she comes to love having her sister there and they grow together.  When Delany, at a moment of severe anxiety and sadness, shows Rose's agony and pain with a silent scream and a gentle sob, I was no good.  The tears flowed on both sides of the footlights. 

Ms. Gardner delivers a magnetic, riveting performance as Lucia.  She fairly embodies a tortured, if resigned everywoman of the Holocaust.  Often, she drifts off to the horrors of her past or an occasional fond memory with a distant, chillingly blank look.  Then the feeling takes over and racks her entire body.  That is not to say Gardner goes for the histrionic.  Far from it.  Instead she gives Lucia and the millions of survivors she represents a stoic and yet regal dignity.  She is also a master at line delivery, both humorous and angry.  And that she does so with an impeccable accent and broken English is a wonder to listen to.  Often, she switches accents in mid-sentence, as we "in America" listen to her struggle to be understood, and then listen to her "in Poland" speak Yiddish as if it were modern English.   

Not surprisingly, when both of these exceptional women share scenes, the theatrical fireworks are no less than amazing.  The final sequence of scenes in act two, which involve the entire company, are achingly beautiful and tragic at once.  Watching the shared agony and innate desire to protect each other that goes on between the two is one of the finest few minutes I have ever spent in a theatre. Sniffles and choked sobs were then heard throughout the space as the audience and cast shared a moving communal experience.

It is so rare when all of the pieces come together as perfectly as they have with A Shayna Maidel.  The rarity makes the experience all the more special, and is the exact reason why theatre enthusiasts love live theatre.  To miss this production would be to truly miss out on an amazing human journey. 

PHOTOS:  Courtesy of Rep Stage, all by Stan Barouh.  TOP to BOTTOM: Lee Mikeska Gardner, Colleen Delany and Dan Manning; Susan Rome and Lee Mikeska Gardner; Lee Mikeska Gardner and Timothy Andres Pabon; Colleen Delany and Lee Mikeska Gardner.

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