Tragic tale is reborn in play

Art: The life of a murdered immigrant inspired a play at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

June 03, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

It's a fascinating but tragic tale: Only 18 months after emigrating from Russia, a young college-educated man gets a job delivering pizza and is murdered during a botched burglary.

It's a true story and the subject of a new drama, "Rim of the Wheel," by Baltimore playwright Daphne R. Hull.

Co-produced by the Howard County Arts Council and the Director's Choice Theatre Company, "Rim of the Wheel" is one of 11 Baltimore Playwrights Festival presentations put on by area theater companies this summer.

It will be presented June 11-27 in the "black box theatre" at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.

Hull, 29, says she was haunted by the 1994 murder of Igor Berenshteyn in northwest Baltimore.

Amid television news reports of the slaying, Hull was struck by the family's despair. Recalling an interview with the young man's mother, she says, "I couldn't forget the look on her face."

So, in 1996, Hull took a short leave of absence from her job and wrote the two-act play in a week.

Since then, the play, which will make its debut as part of the festival, has been honed and rewritten many times.

"I usually don't make too many changes to my plays," says Hull, the director of vocational rehabilitation for Alliance Inc., a Baltimore nonprofit group. "But hopefully, what'll really show through is how the play has matured and gotten stronger. It's a tragedy but it's also very funny."

The first act of "Rim of the Wheel" ends with Berenshteyn's murder; the rest of the play focuses on how his family deals with the tragedy, interspersing moments of comedy with the drama.

Names of characters have been changed from their real-life counterparts and Hull took some liberties with dialogue, because she was not in contact with Berenshteyn's family at the time.

But last week, Hull contacted his mother, Faina Vaynerman, who lives in Pikesville and is host of a Russian-language program on a local radio show. Hull says she owed it to Vaynerman to explain her reasons for writing the play.

"I didn't want her to find out some other way than from me," Hull says, "but I didn't want her reaction to change the play. We talked for a long time and she told me that she was glad her son is living on. She was very supportive."

Vaynerman is expected to see the play on opening night, says Hull, whose other play, "Eulogy," is in the semifinals of South Carolina's Playwrights Festival 2000 and might be picked up by a theater company in Boston.

John Sadowsky, director of "Rim of the Wheel" and co-founder of the Director's Choice Theatre Company, says the play's strong themes resonated with everyone who read the script.

The play deals with "the way a family copes with tragedy and how it survives," Sadowsky says. "The playwright's thesis is that this family's American dream isn't realized. But the story is about how the family has to then cope and eventually come together."

Now in its 18th year, the Baltimore Playwright's Festival is held at seven theaters in and around the city.

Each year, area playwrights submit original scripts to the festival's judges. Volunteer readers critique each script and select a few for a public reading.

Playwrights and the public are invited to the readings, after which theater companies select the plays they would like to produce.

Having a play selected to be a part of the festival can be important for a playwright, especially those who are new and untested, says Rodney Bonds, the festival's president.

"The festival is an opportunity for the author to see the first full-blown reading of their work, which is really helpful," Bonds says. "They can use the opportunity to see how, or if, the play needs to be changed and made better. It's an invaluable opportunity."

Since the festival has started presenting original plays, more than 125 scripts have been read and performed, and many have made their way to theater companies in New York City, Los Angeles and North Carolina.

Theater companies pay a small festival participation fee as well as an honorarium to the playwright.

But being selected to be part of the festival is honor enough, says Hull. "It'll be fun to see it on the stage."

"Rim of the Wheel" runs from June 11 through June 27 at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road in Ellicott City. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. There will be an opening night champagne reception at 7 p.m., with a rededication of the theater acknowledging sponsors Lockheed Martin and Howard County General Hospital. Tickets are $10 and $8 for members, students and seniors. Call 410-313-2787 for information or reservations.

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