A Holocaust survivor reunites with her sister in this insightful but overly careful drama.
A Shayna Maidel begins with with birth of a child during a pogrom in 19th-century Poland. Someone observes that the baby, named Mordechai, already knows not to cry—a survival instinct that the rest of the play interrogates. Barbara Lebow’s 1984 drama, which deals with transgenerational conflict in the aftermath of the Holocaust, is keenly aware of how survival instincts beget survivors’ guilt, sometimes with reason.
Set mostly in 1946, the play revolves around Mordechai’s daughters, Luisa (Emily Berman) and Rose (Bri Sudia). The hard-charging Mordechai (played by Charles Stransky) escaped Poland with Rose when she was very young, leaving Luisa behind with her mother (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis). After the war, the sisters are reunited by their father in New York City. When Luisa arrives early, she and Rose and are left to each other’s devices. They work to overcome the language barrier between them, as Rose fumbles to make her long-lost sister feel welcome and Luisa tries to cobble her life back together. Rose has no memories of life in Poland, but Luisa is haunted by them; she continually slips into vivid recollections—bordering on hallucinations— from her past, including memories of her mother, her friend Hanna (Sarah Wisterman) and the love of her life, Duvid (Alex Stein).
It is these moments in the play, when Luisa’s mind is transported back through time, that best illustrate the limitations of Vanessa Stalling’s generally solid revival. They are accompanied by the sound of ghostly voices echoing across the theatre—an effect so shockingly earnest that it almost dares you to roll your eyes. The production’s strongest choice is Jeffrey Levin’s pulsing, horror movie–style score, whose jarring anachronism excites the imagination. But the revival too often has the same problem as Luisa does: It cannot communicate the breadth of the profound trauma beneath its surface. Despite its high emotional IQ, A Shayna Maidel (whose title is Yiddish for “a pretty girl”) is too mannered and deliberate to reckon properly with its characters and the scope of its subject.
In one key scene, however, the atrocity breaks through. Mordechai and Luisa compare notes on the Holocaust: He offers her a list of relatives’ names, and she informs him of their terrible fates. As Mordechai slowly crumbles under the accumulated weight of his family’s loss, the play’s complex moral calculus gives way to brutally simple proof.
Timeline Theatre. By Barbara Lebow. Directed by Vanessa Stalling. With Emily Berman. Bri Sudia, Carin Schapiro Silkaitis, Charles Stransky, Alex Stein, Sarah Wisterman. Running time: 2hrs 20min. One intermission.
Note: Emily Glick takes over for Sudia starting October 22nd.