By Bill Hirschman
For immigrants wrestling with cultural assimilation, salvation lies not in burying the past life, but coming to terms with its baggage and its ghosts.
Playwright Barbara Lebow illustrated her premise in her 1985 A Shayna Maidel now enjoying an ultimately moving revival at Broward Stage Door. It benefits greatly from a promising performance by Mary Sansone as a shattered Holocaust survivor trying to reconnect with the remains of her family in New York City.
Slender and with a waifish mouselike mien, Sansone’s soulful eyes speak of not simply horrors she has seen outside herself, but of interior guilt. Under the direction of Hugh M. Murphy, Sansone’s Luisa Weiss seems so fettered by an emotional straightjacket and speaks in such halting, faltering English, you’d suspect she has no emotions that have not been cauterized. And yet when she is speaking to her ghosts, Sansone shows us a woman still alive inside, equipped with a quick smile, wit, anger, sorrow and even playfulness.
This is not the definitive production of this South Florida staple because it drags now and again, and the characters’ emotional progression in the final scenes does not seem clearly delineated. The family ends up somewhat healed, but it’s not quite clear why.
But those flaws are overwhelmed by Murphy and company’s work delivering an uplifting and cathartic experience. Their work crescendos in an affecting second act in which secrets and recriminations tumble out, sparking a mélange of guilt, purging, acclimation, understanding and forgiveness.
The play centers on two grown sisters, Rayzel (Valerie Roche) and Luisa Weiss. Four-year-old Rayzel escaped from Poland in the late 1930s with her father Mordechai (Kevin Reilley). They left behind her mother (Miki Edelman) and Luisa because the girl had scarlet fever. Before Mordechai could send for them years later, Mordechai’s wife, Luisa, her husband Duvid (Christian Vandepas), their infant daughter and their friend Hanna (Danielle Tabino) were shipped to concentration camps where all but Duvid died.
Years after the war, the thoroughly Americanized Rayzel remembers nothing of her mother, although a snatch of song or smell might trigger a flash of something familiar. Suddenly, word comes that Luisa has been found in Sweden and is headed to New York.
Rayzel’s father is a patriarchal if affectionate tyrant who presumptuously commandeers Rayzel’s life to nuture her sister. He is unaware that Rayzel has assimilated so completely that she does not strictly keep kosher and she uses the Anglicized name Rose White in the outside world “to be like everyone else.” His loss – and his survivor’s guilt — has put him in an emotional vise that makes him unable to begin a new life.
The reappearance of Luisa creates anxiety (at least in the script) for Rayzel who is trying to distance herself from her origins. Luisa herself is paralyzed by the juxtaposition of her traumatic past and the brave new world of almost unseemly abundance. She reverts to fantasies and dreams in which she revisits her missing husband, her dead friend and her mother. She does not wear a coat outside because, she says, “I want to be cold like the dead ones.”
Mysteries, enigmas and shiploads of guilt must be worked through before this family can be reunited in more than geography.
A Shayna Maidel (Yiddish for “a pretty girl”) has been a popular local offering which speaks to the tragedy in the cultural heritage of many members of its audience, although this is play about family healing not the Holocaust. The 2002 production at Mosaic Theatre in Plantation remains one of the finest dramas in its 11-year history. Another production in 1990 was mounted at the 26th Street Theatre in Wilton Manors which producer Brian C. Smith reputedly joked was so successful that it paid for his Rolls Royce.
The linchpin scene of this or any other production is the “list scene” in the first act. Luisa and Mordechai compare lists each has kept of people they are still looking for and mournfully fill in the fates for many of the names. In her father’s case, Luisa acknowledges name by name that almost his entire extended family was murdered. It is a stunning moment of theatrical craftsmanship that Lebow, Murphy, Reilley and Sansone deliver with restrained but heart-rending simplicity.
This edition is less about assimilation itself than other versions we’ve seen, notably the 1992 television version retitled Miss Rose White, which focused as much on the younger sister’s attempt to hide her heritage. But Lebow has interwoven the assimilation issue so inextricably that grandchildren of immigrants should be able to effortlessly plug in their own family history whether it’s eastern European, African, Irish or Cuban.
Murphy has elicited generally solid performances from his cast, especially from old pros Edelman (so fine in Baby GirL this summer) and Reilley (who scored in Deathtrap).
A bit more problematic is Roche, recently Mary Magdalene in Entr’acte Theatrix’s recent Jesus Christ Superstar. Her Rayzel was genial and convincing much of the time. She was especially effective as her face silently registered her unconsciously repressed sorrow at losing her mother when Luisa reads aloud a letter from her mother. That said, Roche is a young actress and Murphy was unable to get much nuance from her other than the single dimension indicated in the overt top layer of the script.
The production has a nice attention to detail such as actually embroidering Rayzel’s initials on bath towels and providing Luisa’s left forearm with tattooed numbers.
The pace did stumble, in part, because of the set design of Rayzel’s tiny apartment. Because the show was moved from Stage Door’s small theater into its larger one to accommodate audience demand, a large arch separates the sets representing the living room and single bedroom. That forces characters to walk down “a hallway” with nothing to do and bogs down the flow of the action.
A sidenote: Demand for the show has been unusually strong, prompting the move from the small to the large auditorium. At this Wednesday’s matinee, there were hardly any seats empty and nobody came by bus. But those who think seniors don’t use technology should have been in attendance: six cell phones incidents, including two each from two people who failed to turn them off after the first incident.
A Shayna Maidel through Sept. 30 at The Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 West Sample Road, Coral Springs. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call 954-344-7765 or visit www.stagedoortheatre.com.