A family, after the Holocaust

Well-acted `A Shayna Maidel' examines a painful attempt to pick up the pieces


October 12, 2007|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mordechai Weiss remembers his wife as a shayna maidel - Yiddish for "a pretty girl."

They are among the vivid characters in a drama by Barbara Lebow depicting the painful interrelationships of a family shattered by the Holocaust. A Shayna Maidel runs through Nov. 4 at Rep Stage.

It's March 1946; World War II has been over for months. Rose Weiss (played by Colleen Delany) is thoroughly American. She has no memory of her early years in Poland, nor of her mother and elder sister who stayed behind.

Mordechai, her 70-year-old father (Dan Manning), is an Orthodox Jew, a man of immense dignity and strength of character, hard and unyielding as a pillar of stone. He came to America in the late 1920s with Rose, joined a distant relative's business in Brooklyn as a stock clerk and worked his way up to partner.

Now he practically runs the place.

Rose has her own apartment in Manhattan. She hasn't told Papa she no longer keeps kosher - but he knows.

The edgy balance of their relationship is upset when Papa's elder daughter, Lusia (Lee Mikeska Gardner), turns up alive and joins them in New York.

Lusia is heavy with emotional scars. She refuses to wear the new clothing Rose buys for her. She won't even put on a warm coat to ward off the cold.

Knowing only a few words of English, she doesn't say why, but we can guess. She would feel she was betraying all the people who didn't survive. Nice clothes would help her forget, and it would be wrong to forget.

Lusia has terrible nightmares, which Rose tries vainly to ignore. Mercifully, she also has benign daydreams. We see flashbacks to her life in Poland - her teenage years with Mama (Susan Rome) and her best friend Hanna (Rebecca Ellis), her later years with her beloved husband.

Through Lusia's eyes we see Mama as a loving mother, baking goodies for Lusia and Hanna, reciting wise little sayings.

Mama is a woman of serene faith, firmly believing her husband's inability to rescue them is part of God's plan. Lusia is enraged by this fatalistic attitude.

She remembers her husband Duvid (Timothy Andres Pabon) as smart, resourceful and self-confident. Now, in 1946, she doesn't know whether he is alive or dead. She does know Hanna's fate; she watched as her friend died of typhus in the camp.

Lusia's arrival creates emotional cross-currents. Rose begins by resenting her sister, later comes to love her and ends by identifying with Lusia and the ordeal she went through. Lusia can't forgive Papa for not rescuing her mother and her.

Beneath his stoicism Papa is grieved by his rebellious daughters. With bad feelings on all sides, he doggedly attempts to repair his broken family. In his eyes, family is the most important thing in life.

The play is impressively directed by Peg Denithorne and consummately acted by a strong cast. Gardner, as Lusia, gives a virtuoso performance in what amounts to three separate roles - a giggly teenager, a loving wife and an emotionally damaged immigrant with a meager knowledge of English.

The production team immerses the actors in 1940s America. In creating Rose's Manhattan apartment, James Kronzer displays a sure eye for period detail: dark wooden doors and door frames, a radiator against the wall, a table radio, Life magazines lying around, even antimacassars on the armchair.

Howard Vincent Kurtz provides Rose with 1940s-style dresses that might have come from Macy's or Gimbel's. Chas Marsh punctuates the action with big-band sound, alternating with klezmer music, heavy on the clarinet.

A Shayna Maidel is a moving look at a devastated family that works through serious differences to reach an accommodation - far from a perfect one, but as good as can be expected in life.

Rep Stage presents "A Shayna Maidel" by Barbara Lebow through Nov. 4 in the Black Box Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. An after-show audience discussion will be held tonight and Oct. 19. A free preshow lecture by Holocaust survivor Regina Spiegel is scheduled at 1 p.m. tomorrow in the college's Monteabaro Recital Hall. Reservations: 410-772-4900 or www.repstage.org

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