There are moments in everyone’s life of narrow misses; moments where you avoid a car accident by an inch or a quarter turn of a wheel or perhaps something which passes by without your noticing. But as quickly as these instances occur, just as swiftly do they oftentimes fade away, being pushed back into the realm of the unthinkable.
It is the reminder of such a feeling, the ghosts of what might have been, that haunt the protagonists of Barbara Lebow’s emotionally resonant A Shayna Maidel. The play tells the story of two sisters separated by chance (or perhaps, as their parents perceive it, by God’s will) when a bout with Scarlet fever prevents the elder (Lusia Weiss Pechenik) from emigrating to America alongside her father and younger sister (Rose Weiss). What begins as a narrow miss, a temporary separation, is soon magnified as the Germans invade Poland, and Lusia and her mother not only cannot join the family as anticipated, but also become victims of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The play begins not with these horrors but with what comes after, as the sisters finally reunite in America in 1946. At this point, the two have little in common, save their shared biology, as Rose was too young even to remember much of her time in Poland or even their mother. As the play develops, though, so too does the sister’s relationship, and it is this exploration of grief, of surviving, of difference, of family, and so much more, that makes TimeLine Theatre’s season debut so incredibly relevant and resonant: the first must-see of the fall theatre season.
The stark differences between the two siblings is expertly exemplified from the start by actors Emily Berman (Lusia) and Bri Sudia (Rose). Berman, costumed perfectly by Samantha C. Jones, first appears in her sister’s apartment almost as an apparition, a gaunt and shell-shocked woman trying to cope with unimaginable horrors. Yet, in flashbacks, we see glimpses of Lusia in what seems like another life--a time before the Nazis invasion when she lived happily with her mother (played by Carin Silkaitis) and sweetheart Duvid (Alex Stein). Berman’s ability to transform herself from moment to moment, to capture Lusia’s grief and sorrow in one instance and her utter joy in another, adds even more depth to this well-written character.
As her counterpart, the boisterous, Americanized Rose, Sudia leads us deftly through her character’s emotional journey, as she grapples with a mix of complicated emotions--jealousy, guilt, sorrow, love, etc. Overall, there are so many layers to this piece and these performances, and (under the direction of Vanessa Stalling) Berman and Sudia somehow manage to guide us through them all--a true triumph.
That being said, the script is not flawless--Lebow never surprises in plot, and there are a few scenes which feel superfluous. Yet the play’s overall themes and the cast’s performances are ones which resonate long after leaving the theatre. You’ll leave contemplating life’s near-misses. You’ll leave grappling with immigration policies, those that separate families, likes our characters’, ‘temporarily.’ You’ll leave hearing the echoes of your ancestors and questioning the significance of where, with whom, and with what resources one is raised. You’ll leave asking yourself what’s most important to you, what you would save and hold on to if the world around you ever crumbled. It’s, as the best productions are, an experience with lasting effects.
Highly Recommended ★★★★
Review by Emily Schmidt
A Shayna Maidel continues at TimeLine Theatre through Nov. 4. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.