By Julie Janson
Peace Mountain Theatre Company’s production of Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel is a piercing, unabashed look at life before and after the Holocaust through the eyes of two separated sisters: one who escaped, one who survived.
The play takes place in both 1946 New York City and in the memories of pre-war Poland. Though born in Poland, Rose Weiss (Cristen Stephansky) is now in her 20s living as an all-American girl in her very own Manhattan apartment. She came to the United States at the age of four with her father, Mordechai (Jerry Schuchman), leaving behind her sick older sister Lusia (Annette Kalicki) and mother (Jillian Blair). Lusia found happiness in her new life, loving her friend Hannah (Deliana Daskalova) as a sister and marrying young Duvid (David Dieudonne).
This happiness was short-lived, as Duvid was arrested and Lusia and mother were sent to concentration camps, where her mother perished, still holding on to her faith and hope of reuniting with her family. In the meantime, Rose was “playing stickball and going to the movies and eating Mello-Rolls.” She has no concrete memories of her mother or sister.
We begin the show with the news that Lusia is finally arriving in America. No-nonsense Mordechai informs Rose that Lusia will stay with her, whether she likes it or not. The reunion is fraught with missteps and embarrassment. Lusia, with her broken English and old-world ways, proves a striking contrast to polished, independent Rose. The sisters come face-to-face with what their lives could have been, battling to cope the only way they know how — Lusia with memory and fantasy, Rose with material pleasures.
What unfolds will arrest and haunt you.
Director Laurie Freed profoundly and unapologetically tackles the subject matter, glossing over nothing. She displays complete command over the complex material. Despite dialogue that frequently switches between English and Yiddish, the audience never feels left out. In fact, some of the staging is so confrontational that it reminds the audience that they too must face these truths head-on.
In a cast full of accomplished performances, the standout is Annette Kalicki as Lusia. Kalicki is so utterly convincing as a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who has gone to hell and back that you ache to think of what she must be going through night after night. In a role that could so easily slide into melodrama, Kalicki maintains a matter-of-factness about Lusia that makes her emotional moments almost too visceral to stand, which is exactly what Director Laurie Freed wants this audience to feel.
A perfect compliment to Kalicki, Christen Stephansky as Rose shines as a once happy-go-lucky youth struggling with immeasurable survivor’s guilt. Stephansky expertly conveys the feelings many of us have experienced when trying to deal with our own struggles in the company of someone who has suffered exponentially more. Stephansky reminds us that suffering is suffering, regardless of scale.
Dieudonne as Duvid and Daskalova as Hannah provided the strongest feature performances of the evening, giving shamelessly affectionate and loving performances, which make Lusia all the more endearing. Schuchman and Blair round out the ensemble with strong, compelling performances.
While technical aspects are somewhat limited in the temple space, Set Designer John Decker provides a simple yet effective use of the space. Lighting Designer Jim Robertson deftly guides the audience through reality, memory, and fantasy.
Despite some hiccups, Sound Designer Nick Sampson fills in the gaps where the set is limited. Costume design, by Stephenie Yee, and property design, by Anne Cary, are perfectly on point.
Peace Mountain Theatre Company bravely tackles difficult yet critical topics, often through the lens of the family unit. Along with powerful dramas, they use theatre to promote discussion on issues such as the opioid crisis and cyberbullying. A Shayna Maidel is no exception to this company’s admirable body of work and is not to be missed.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
A Shayna Maidel plays through October 28, 2018, at Peace Mountain Theatre Company performing at Congregation Har Shalom — 11510 Falls Road, in Potomac, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.