`Maidel' searingly intense drama


January 23, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SUN STAFF

A shayna maidel is a pretty girl in Yiddish, the colorfully archaic form of German once spoken by millions of European Jews.

In the crucible of death that was Hitler's Third Reich, countless shayna maidlach were tortured, murdered and fed to the ovens, along with their parents, siblings, children and extended families.

Some of them, of course, did survive, only to face the nearly impossible task of getting on with their lives after having endured the unendurable for so long. The tale of such a survivor is told in Barbara Lebow's searingly intense play, A Shayna Maidel, which is in production at the Colonial Players of Annapolis through Feb. 8.

Mordechai Weiss and his youngest daughter, Rayzel, got out of Poland before Hitler's noose tightened around the necks of Jews in that Nazi-occupied country.

They came to New York City, where the father found work and the daughter found an assimilative American lifestyle and a new name - Rose - to go with it.

Illness and economic fallout from the Great Depression kept them from sending for the loved ones they had left behind and, finally, it was too late. Only Lusia, the elder daughter, made it out of the Holocaust alive.

And as Lusia arrives in New York, a displaced survivor searching for the young man she had married just as the sky fell and adjusting to life in America with her father and sister, we experience the melange of pain, guilt, denial and love that forms the backdrop of the play.

"I do not believe that this is intended to be a historical play about the Holocaust," says director Tom Newbrough in his perceptive notes, "but rather a character study of how the survivors of such a tragedy go on about the business of living and healing."

A Shayna Maidel is a tall order on several counts.

On top of the kaleidoscopic range of conflicting emotions that must be conveyed by the actors in such a piece, the play is full of complicated light and sound cues that are used to distinguish Lusia's memories and fantasies from the reality of her sister's apartment. Without evocative effects and seamless transitions, the story line would be a disjointed mess.

Accents and the extensive use of Yiddish also could have posed their share of problems. Lusia, for example, must deliver a fair number of her lines in Yiddish, even as she speaks in heavily accented English to her sister and father, and fluent English (rather than Polish, which would have been spoken) in the flashback scenes with her mother and Duvid, her young lover and husband.

Colonial's cast and crew were up to each and every challenge last Thursday night.

Visual techniques bathed the stage in the light of remembrance, while venues and accents were melded into a transcendent whole, telling in its impact.

The most challenging interlude of all - the scene where Lusia reads Rose a letter written to her by their deceased mother as the mother herself participates in the recitation from the next room - is perhaps the most heart-rending. Past and present, grief and affirmation, love and horror all come together with unearthly power in this deftly handled moment.

The three principals are quite extraordinary.

Rebecca Ellis delivers a bilingual, tri-accented tour de force in the title role. Lusia's pain is all too real, but it's the strength and dignity of this woman that comes across most clearly. There are many heartbreaking moments in this play, but Lusia's insistence that she leave the apartment coatless - so that she'll feel something, even if it's only the cold - is, for me, the most affectingly human.

Frank Moorman imbues the father with an Old World aristocratic flair that stylishly moots the force of his clipped, rather arrogant demeanor.

Santina Maiolatesi takes on a roller-coaster ride of emotion as the younger sister whose comfortable, assimilated life is turned upside down by her sister's truth.

With excellent contributions from Terri Madden as the doomed mother, Heather Whitpan as Lusia's childhood friend, Hanna, and Pat Reynolds as Duvid, Colonial's Shayna Maidel takes its place as one of the saddest and most moving yet, in its own way, most life-affirming pieces of theater Colonial has offered us in many a year.

Information and ticket reservations: 410-268-7373.

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