8036 W. Sample Road
Coral Springs, Fl 33065
Performing at Broward Stage Door Theatre (Aug 24 - Oct 28)
Runtime: 2 Hours 15 Minutes
by Christine Dolen
September 9, 2012
As the years roll on and survivors of the Holocaust leave this world, plays like Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel become more than just another piece of theater. They are valuable artistic tools, spurs to remembrance or enlightenment, a way of grasping the unimaginable by viewing tragedy through the prism of one family’s loss.
At the start of a new season, Stage Door Theatre has revived Lebow’s 1986 drama about Polish sisters reunited in Manhattan just after World War II. A Shayna Maidel isn’t new to Broward – the late Brian C. Smith produced it in 1990, and Mosaic Theatre did it in 2002 – but the play seems to belong in a place that has become home to so many whose lives and families were forever altered by the Holocaust. At Stage Door, rapt audiences hang on every word.
Though over-long and at times a bit confusing, the play is an involving examination of the way that seemingly small, practical decisions can have tragic consequences.
In Poland in the late 1920s, the Weiss family decides to emigrate to the United States. Papa Mordechai (Kevin Reilley) leaves first with little Rayzel (Valerie Roche), the younger daughter. Mama (Miki Edelman) stays behind with elder daughter Lusia (Mary Sansone), who has come down with scarlet fever. The plan is for Mama and Lusia to follow them, but history intervenes, first with the Depression, then with the horrors of war.
The bulk of the play takes place in 1946, as the grown, married Lusia finally arrives in America. Like so many others, she has survived a concentration camp and unspeakable losses. Her beloved husband Duvid (Christian Vandepas) vanished in 1940, but Lusia remains stubbornly convinced that he survived the war and that she will find him. But for the time being, the plan is for her to live with Rayzel, a throughly Americanized gal who calls herself Rose White and remembers almost nothing about her brief early years in Poland.
Superficially, Rayzel is the shayna maidel, or “pretty girl,” of the play’s title. But at least initially, Roche makes her a spoiled, superficial, rather ugly American lacking in empathy. Slender and watchfully intense, Sansone makes Lusia a woman of conviction, strength and quiet inner beauty.
A Shayna Maidel shows us worlds colliding, as Lusia gradually reveals the losses that have scarred her, as the protected Rayzel learns her sobering family history, as the domineering Mordechai deals with his daughters and his festering guilt. Lusia imagines conversations with those who are gone, with Mama and with her childhood friend Hanna (Danielle Tabino). She also talks to the absent Duvid and summons playful memories of their loving, youthful innocence.
Time, reality and fantasy are fluid in A Shayna Maidel, and though director Hugh M. Murphy keeps things relatively clear, some moments are confusing. The configuration of the set presents major staging challenges, as the living area and bedroom of Rayzel’s apartment are separated by a colorful mural of pre-war Poland, requiring the gals to walk through “Poland” if they want to go from one room to the other.
Yiddish is used strategically throughout the play, but phrases are restated in English, so there’s no confusion on that score. The play’s pace, however, is so stately that the running time could probably be slashed by 15 minutes if all the pregnant pauses and heavy silences were excised. And they should be.