Thursday, September 20, 2018

Terrifically Hard to Relate: At TimeLine, 'A Shayna Maidel' Provides a Powerful Look at the Past, Present, Future and the Unfathomable -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Shayna Maidel
by Barbara Lebow
directed by Vanessa Stalling
TimeLine Theatre Company, Chicago
Thru November 4

A friend recently shared word of a refugee family from Africa who has relocated to a Midwestern American city after 20 years of waiting in a holding camp.

Although the specific circumstances are vastly different from those in Barbara Lebow's A Shayna Maidel--a play written in 1984, set in 1946 and largely referencing the 15 years prior--I couldn't help think of the African family as I watched TimeLine Theatre's excellent production.

Quite empathetic to immigrants (legal and illegal) and especially refugees--I find the numbers about vastly declining U.S. admissions rather shameful--I try to imagine what the specific family of seven must be facing...and already has.

It seems they are being welcomed by a warm community, their acclimation hopefully abetted by a sizable group of prior immigrants from their home country.

Hopefully they will feel safe and warm, well-fed and largely away from anyone who might object to their being here, or express xenophobic hate.

Photo credit on all: Lara Goetsch
In time, the children will ideally get comfortable in local schools, the parents will be able to find work and friends, and through a combination of culture and camaraderie, the family will truly feel at home.

Yet how could I or most anyone--even my friend, who has nobly engaged in social service activities in Central Africa--ever really have any idea what these people have gone through.

And what must go through their minds.

In A Shayna Maidel, a Polish immigrant named Rose Weiss (Bri Sudia, excellent here in a drama, as she's been in a number of musicals) lives alone in Brooklyn, physically and emotionally close to her overbearing father, Mordecai (Charles Stransky).

The show's timeline had me a bit confused, but I think around 1930 or so, the dad brought Rose to America when she was just 4, leaving behind his wife and another, slightly older daughter, Luisa, who Rose now recalls only by name.

Initially left in Poland due to an illness, and then due to choices Mordecai made during the depression, Luisa (wonderfully played by Maggie Scrantom as an understudy for Emily Berman at the performance I attended) wound up being sent to a Nazi concentration camp, as did her mother, husband and other relatives.

But as A Shayna Maidel opens, in 1946, Mordecai wakes Rose up with the news that Luisa somehow survived the Holocaust and will soon be arriving in New York.

This news shocks and delights Rose, but also initially flusters her, as her papa insists that Luisa stay with her, in the one-bedroom apartment that makes for a striking, static set piece by Collette Pollard.

Not only did Rose never consciously know Luisa in Poland, but even in adjusting to the cramped space, there are communication issues, including much that remains unspoken.

Speaking with an accent and referring to Rose by her Polish name, Luisa becomes both fluent in English and openly talkative probably quicker than reality, but Scrantom was quite convincing in embodying her harrowed reticence.

Luisa's husband Duvid (Alex Stein), friend Hanna (Sarah Wisterman) and her & Rose's mother (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) are repeatedly seen onstage, often in flashback or memory scenes, and what happened to them before and during the Holocaust is part of the ongoing drama of A Shayna Maidel.

But although there are tough questions among the characters and considerable dramatic tension, the heart of A Shayna Maidel--which means "pretty girl" in Yiddish--is the reclaimed relationship between the sisters, who never really knew each other and have had vastly different experiences.

As noted above, I've seen Bri Sudia in multiple musicals, most recent being Wonderful Town at Goodman Theatre, a Leonard Bernstein musical about young adult sisters living in and discovering New York City after relocating from Ohio.

So I couldn't help but think of that coincidence in terms of similarities and vast differences, not just in terms of the shows, but the sisters. And beyond the graver side of A Shayna Maidel is a sisterly sweetness as Rose tries to introduce Luisa to modern fashions, hairstyles, and more, with a good bit of humor and commiseration, including regarding their harsh father. This isn't so unlike Wonderful Town.

But the grief, horror, memories, images, thankfulness, trepidation, fear, bewilderment and much else undoubtedly going through Luisa's head are almost unfathomable for me--or presumably most anyone, including Rose--to imagine, let alone truly know. Which prompted made me think compassionately about the African refugees my friend recently helped welcome to America, and others akin.

Yet while Rose--who seemingly grew up comfortably in Brooklyn, though remains single and struggling a bit professionally--has seemingly had things much easier, her mental anxiety must also be substantial.

To have been safe knowing your mom and sister were in peril, to have--once the extent of Hitler's depravity became well-known--imagined about what they must have experienced, to have presumed them and many other loved ones perished, to have conceivably felt great guilt for your good fortune and to now have your sister--an embodiment of all of the above--living in your home, well, that's gotta be a mind-f*ck.

And a big part of what makes A Shayna Maidel so fascinating--as directed at TimeLine by Vanessa Stalling--is in what is never said.

What must these two young women be thinking? Beyond a few nightmares that are depicted, how can they possibly sleep at night? What must it be like for Luisa to ride a crowded train, as she commutes to a job with an immigrants' aid agency.

And what can it possibly be like to be a kid put in a cage, separated from your mom and/or dad, at the U.S. border? What must it feel like to be the mom or dad?

What might the experience--internal and external--be for African children who have spent their entire lives in holding camps to find themselves in classrooms with kids who have grown up with Happy Meals and iPhones and Pixar films and Netflix?

Due to some chronological and dramaturgical confusion, I can't quite dub A Shayna Maidel a perfect play, even with a splendid rendition by TimeLine.

But like great theater should, it sure made think. Including about things largely unthinkable.

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