Play tells Jewish family story in aftermath of Holocaust

A scene from 'A Shayna Maidel'

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago  Jewish News

“A Shayna Maidel” is a powerful and poignant drama about two sisters trying to reconnect after years of separation brought on by the aftermath of the Holocaust.  TimeLine Theater Company presents a revival of the play through Nov. 4 which explores family, faith and forgiveness in the pursuit of a better future.

A Shayna Maidel,” the title is Yiddish meaning “pretty girl,” begins with the story of a daughter and her father, Rose and Mordechai Weiss, who escaped Poland shortly before World War II and have adapted to life as new Americans  in New York City. In their escape, they were forced to leave behind Rose’s sister Lusia and her mother. When Rose and Lusia are reunited, Rose struggles to engage with an older sister who, having survived the horrors of war overseas, now seems a stranger. And Lusia—haunted by vivid memories of her past—is uncertain about connecting with a family she’s never known and to believe in the potential of life in a new land.

Written in 1984, “A Shayna Maidel” was widely produced by America’s leading regional theaters and became a long-running success Off Broadway from 1987 to 1989. The play is still in production regionally and internationally. Playwright Barbara Lebow said she is very excited about the Chicago production directed by Vanessa Stalling and will make an appearance at the end of September. “I trust them completely,” Lebow said. “They seem very respectful of the language, the words, what’s going on with the characters, what they feel. That’s so important. I want them to find their own way.”

The production stands the test of time “in a sadly apparent way,” said Stalling of her Timeline debut. “The play is about a family’s need to come to America, to emigrate to escape danger and they are unable to. It’s really just a contemporary reflection on what’s happening in our country right now where families are getting separated at our borders and not allowed to come to America as refugees.”

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is. “It’s shocking to learn how many people don’t actually understand what happened and so this play is again an opportunity to revisit the horrendous mistakes of the past so we can learn from them,” Stalling said. “Obviously we still need to because it has been forgotten.”

The New York Times hailed “A Shayna Maidel” as “a tribute to the sustaining power of family.” The Hartford Journal Inquirer called the play “an emotional powerhouse of almost overwhelming proportions,” and the Atlanta Constitution raved that “anyone who sees it will not soon forget it.”

Stalling’s revival of “A Shayna Maidel” for TimeLine will feature Emily Berman as Lusia and Bri Sudia as Rose. The cast also includes Hanna Dworkin as Mama, Charles Stransky as Mordechai   Alex Stein as Duvid and Sarah Wisterman as Hanna.

Stalling said that that the entire cast has “brought such heart and care and a sense of responsibility for telling the story.” Lebow has presented the cast and crew with a fantastic challenge of mixing genres, she added. “The play is very realistic, interrupted by these moments of fantasy and memory scenes that can feel quite magical.”

Timeline Productions features a display of the history of immigration to the United States and organizations that are helping refugees that need donations. “It’s called ‘Back Story,’” Stalling said. “The mission of the theater is to revisit historical events that are very relevant today.”

In addition to her own writing, Lebow facilitates play creation with disenfranchised people including the homeless, addicts, youth at risk, developmentally and physically disabled persons and women in prison.

She interviewed many survivors to create “A Shayna Maidel.” “Little bits of their stories have found their way into the play but it wasn’t anyone’s particular story. I wanted to know what you did from the moment you were liberated, how they survived and who they became after.

“Everyone tells me this is a Holocaust play, but it didn’t start out as that,” Lebow said. “Rose had her own early suffering when she was three, taken from her mother and sister by her father. The father never wanted to tell her the truth. It was too painful for him to remember and she grew up completely Americanized. This is her awakening to that so in that sense it is a Holocaust play.”

Tickets to “A Shayna Maidel” can be purchased at www.timelinetheatre.com. The theater is located at 615 W. Wellington Ave. in Chicago.

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