By Michelle F. Solomon
There have been various stagings of the play A Shayna Maidel in South Florida. In August 2012 at Broward Stage Door, Hugh M. Murphy directed a production of Barbara Lebow’s play about two sisters separated by the Holocaust. Other productions locally were done by Mosaic Theatre in 2002 in Plantation, and in Wilton Manors at the 26th Street Theatre way back in 1990.
Whether you have seen A Shayna Maidel before, Chicken Coop Theater at Levis JCC Sandler Center does a fine job keeping intact Lebow’s touching drama and its very definite Holocaust theme. But this production goes one smart step further, finding more universal themes of love and loss, parents and their relationships to their children, and the bond of siblings. There are questions that are inherently brought up no matter what our backgrounds. “What if a sister I hadn’t seen in years showed up at my door? What if I discovered stories about my ancestors’ pasts that I never knew? What if?. . .”
In this imagining, these themes are never swallowed up by the complex melodrama that unabashedly confront the horror stories of the Holocaust, yet there’s no mistaking that the facts of why the two girls were separated are as indelible as one of the sisters’ serial number tattoo branded on her during her imprisonment in one of the camps.
A Shayna Maidel takes place in 1946 New York City, where carefree 21-year-old Rose Weiss (Krystel Adela Mills) is enjoying being an American girl in Manhattan. Her father, Mordechai Weiss (Jerry Weinberg) visits from Brooklyn. He pays her no compliments, and complains about the meals she’s cooked him and about her commitment (or non-commitment thereof) to keeping Kosher.
Soon into his visit he announces to Rose that her sister Lusia (Kayla Gambrill) is arriving in America. The patriarch tells her that Rose will sleep on the couch and give her sister her bedroom, and that she’ll take a vacation from work. There is no arguing with Mordechai. “This is your flesh and blood,” he informs her despite her never knowing her sister since she left the old country at the age of four. You see, Mordechai had taken Rose as a toddler to America, leaving his wife (Fern Katz) and older daughter Lusia behind.
When Lusia does show up at Rose’s door dressed in hand me down clothes and looking like a refugee, her fast-talking sister is ready to do a makeover, run her a bubble bath, and have her learn lyrics of Andrews Sisters songs. Much of the play capitalizes on this contrast, Lusia looking for words, embarrassed by her broken English and lapsing into dream sequences. These are her memories that Rose doesn’t have – time with the girls’ mother, and wedded bliss to her husband, Duvid (Om Jae). Lusia became separated from him when she, her mother, and her baby were sent to the concentration camps. She is sure he’s still alive.
There are so many moments in co-directors Alan Nash and Holly Budney’s production, and much of the success of this piece lies in the contrast and chemistry between the two sisters. Mills as Rose and Gambrill as Lusia understand their characters and embody their very distinct characteristics. Mills’ decline from the giddy shayna maidel (Yiddish for pretty girl) to her feelings of guilt of how she was the lucky one chosen to escape such cruelties are so palpable that you descend along with her. Where Lusia could be a caricature full of histrionics, Gambrill keeps her full of underlying emotion, but with a surface tone of facts and acceptance. Gambrill is given the hardest task of all Lebow’s characters as Lusia is the one who must recall in fantasy sequences the family’s backstory. She finds the right balance in her task of jumping back and forth from real to memory.
Weinberg as the tyrannical, self-imposed blameless father Mordechai evokes the perfect pairing of contempt and pity. The playwright, in her notes in the script tells the actor who plays him: “Mordechai is the hub of the family wheel.” Weinberg is just that.
The supporting players, Katz as Mama, Jae as David, and Hannah Marks as Lusia’s girlhood friend, are solid in their performances, each helping to uncover another layer of the story.
It is evident the amount of dedication that has been put into bringing to life Lebow’s demanding show. Her text is deep and commands understanding. Hopefully audiences will be mindful of this commitment of Chicken Coop’s A Shayna Maidel. On opening night, some in the audience spoke aloud and laughed at inappropriate times about particulars that needn’t have been recognized. In theater, sometimes there needs to be a suspension of logic that we can accept when it comes to minor details. As a testament to the professionalism and devotion of the actors, they didn’t let trite comments about stage business regarding Rose’s table clearing and Lusia’s floor scrubbing, rattle them. It was, however, a distraction and a disservice to the actors and other audience members.
William Barclay’s set was wonderfully rendered, however, it was difficult to believe that a Manhattan apartment could be so spacious. On a positive note, it did provide many opportunities for memory scenes and emotions to unfold. Anthony Rein’s sound waxes nostalgic, and Budney and Liza Nash’s costumes are steeped in the era.
Yes, this is a drama about the Holocaust, about family secrets, about sibling bonding, about how lives can change in an instant, about immigrants coming to America and about those that are left behind. Chicken Coop’s interpretation of Lebow’s script is about all that, but what’s yours to take away from this A Shayna Maidel is left as an individual choice. That’s one of the rarest gems of this production.
A Shayna Maidel runs through Jan. 27 inside Beifield Auditorium at Levis JCC Sandler Center, 21050 95th Avenue South, Boca Raton. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday; 2 p.m. Thursday & Sunday. Tickets $30-$40. Running time, two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. (561) 558-2520, www.levisjcc.org/theater.