- A Shayna Maidel
- By Barbara Lebow
- Directed by Peg Denithorne
- Produced by Rep Stage
- Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
A Shayna Maidel, the title is Yiddish meaning “pretty girl”, tells the story of what happens when two sisters reunite after years of separation brought on by the aftermath of the Holocaust. Set in Brooklyn, 1946, the beautiful script by Barbara Lebow explores the growing relationship between the sisters, when the younger one who escaped to America as a child is suddenly confronted by her older sister who was left behind and survived the horrors of war. Raised in such diverse environments that they may as well have come from different planets, their meeting provokes unexpected or anticipated questions each has about the other as well as reflections on identity, role, family placement and self- worth.
As if that wasn’t enough for a life-time of deliberation, each must deal with her own special relationship with their formidable Papa who has his own emotional burdens to work through, namely his decisions early in the war that helped to shatter the lives of his loved ones forever. What sets this script apart from so many others are the magical passages that delve in the inner world of memory and emotions and the reflections of Lusia Pachenik, the older sister played with strong yet tender intensity by Lee Mikeska Gardner.
The play starts with a touching prologue of the actual birth of Papa, Mordechai Weiss; mom is lying in the birthing position in a field outside a small Polish village. A hushed crowd of women are busily assisting, with sounds of war and imminent danger all around them. A swift change in sound and lighting (designed by Chas Marsh and Jason Arnold, respectively), and we are transported to the opening scene in Brooklyn 70 years later. Rose is awakened in the middle of the night by Papa who knocks and calls loudly at the door, actually, more like an insistent and persistent banging with unrelenting ferociousness. In the first few moments, with the juxtaposition of such different scenes, the script casts a hue, kind of an overlay that settles over the rest of the play, mainly the ubiquitous impact of Papa and history that touches every scene, utterance, and even every decision.
Papa has just learned that Lusia has been liberated from their war torn Poland homeland and is on her way to America to join them. Rose receives this news with hushed joy and reservation, especially as Papa pronounces that from now on, Rose must keep strict Kosher and that Lusia will be staying with her. When Rose quietly hesitates about not enough space in a one bedroom apartment, Papa angrily rebukes her selfishness, and orders her to relinquish her bedroom to her sister and sleep on the couch. Rose’s appearance in a flowery silk dressing gown and furtive mannerisms contrasts with Lusia’s dowdy woolen tattered garments when she arrives several days later, an immediate reflection that they are worlds apart in all kinds of ways.
Gardner’s entrance as Lusia is a brilliantly directed effective touch by Peg Denithorme, aided by a luscious three-room set, designed by James Kronzer. Lusia shuffles in from the front of the audience, bundled up in tattered drab attire and climbs the several stairs to a slight landing that thrusts from the stage. In her broken, halting English, she mispronounces her sister’s name so badly that Rose almost hangs up on her until she finally understands who is calling. The initial interaction, miscommunication, the carefree innocence of the younger sister contrasts with the plodding and deeply rooted nature of the older one as they learn more about each other in discovery and revelation.
The play is perfectly cast with Gardner portraying the elder sister, weary and war-torn as the homeland she just left. Gardner has the added task of playing the character from a different perspective when Lusia retreats to her comforting world of memory and reflection. Gardner’s body language softens, her stance and movements become more comfortable and assured, even her halting, stumbling words and language ease while her face blossoms into laughter and smiles during those beautifully opaque-lit scenes, light design by Jason Arnold. It’s a stunning performance. Colleen Delany exudes a sweet innocence as Rose, staunchly deferential to her bellowing Papa, yet filled with the excitement of a true American Girl, with a fresh, young take on a world that, unlike her sister, has not beaten her down,
And then there is Papa (Dan Manning) whose presence permeates the play, from his loud entrance to the most touching moment of healing and forgiveness at the end. Manning does a masterful job bringing a sense of vulnerability to this tightly wound and complex character.
Peg Denithorne directs the play with a sure and steady hand, exploring the characters, depicting their growth and expression with remarkable assurance, especially evident in the memory scenes which are seamlessly woven into the story. Susan Rome as “Mama” is beautiful, alive and well in Lusia’s precious recollections, and Denithorne captures those moments with tenderness and grace.
A Shayna Maidel is one of the most touching plays I’ve seen in years. Instead of depicting the horrific front line battles of war or its devastating aftermath, it gently tells the story of what happens when a family struggles to pick up the pieces and move forward. In one incredible scene, Lucia in a crisp and methodical tally, lists the names and fate of family members that Papa has written in his own journal as whereabouts unknown. Talk about battle scars. Yet, the playwright Lebow successfully shows how the emotional scars from abandonment and loss of family connection are important, too, and that a pervasive sense of family helps to get past these scars – they still hurt, but the healing salve of love and legacy gets us back on our feet, no matter what. This is theater at its finest and is not to be missed.
- (Running time: approx 2:30)
- Where: Rep Stage, 1091 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044
- When: Thru November 4th. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 2:30 pm.
- Tickets: $17-$25
- Info: call 401- 772-4900 or consult the website.