TimeLine Theatre Company’s season premiere production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL is a beautiful, haunting, and necessary theater experience. Barbara Lebow’s play reunites sisters Rose (Bri Sudia) and Lusia (Emily Berman) in 1946 New York City. Though the play was written in 1984 and takes place in the middle of the last century, A SHAYNA MAIDEL’s emotional story of survival cuts deep. As a young girl, Rose was fortunate to escape from Poland to America with her father Mordechai (Charles Stransky) before the beginning of the Holocaust. Due to a an untimely and devastating bout of Scarlet Fever, however, Lusia was forced to remain in Poland with the girls’ Mama (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) and did not escape the horrors of the concentration camps. Reunited for the first time in many years, both Rose and Lusia must contend with their own guilty feelings and to rebuild a relationship nearly from scratch.
Though the entirety of Vanessa Stalling’s production is staged in Collette Pollard’s charmingly designed apartment and Lebow’s scenes mainly involve conversations about the past, A SHAYNA MAIDEL (Yiddish for “a pretty girl”) has a freshness and immediacy that had me on the edge of my seat. This is in no small part because of the extraordinary performances from Stalling’s ensemble. Sudia and Berman seem perfectly cast. As Rose, Sudia brings a nervous energy and earnestness that befits her character’s dilemma. In Sudia’s performance, we see Rose’s relief that her sister remains alive, her guilt at the fact that she was able to escape the horrors her sister experienced, and her hesitation to welcome a woman who is now essentially a stranger into her home. Sudia is able to convey all these dimensions to Rose with her tone of voice and her exaggerated hand gestures; it is hard to imagine an actor more suited for the role. Berman brings a tenderness and a hesitancy to Lusia that fit the role elegantly. And together, these actors convincingly convey a special connection that can only come from their sibling bond. Lusia warms quickly to Rose as she navigates an unfamiliar world that feels entirely too opulent to her, and Berman portrays this well. The dynamic between Rose and Lusia especially begins to shift once Mordechai (portrayed in a compellingly stern yet tender-hearted manner by Stransky) comes to the stage. Berman’s Lusia soon finds comfort in Rose’s presence, even as she remains intimated by her father.
A SHAYNA MAIDEL is not an easy play to watch, nor should it be. The air seemed to leak out of the room in a first act scene in which Mordechai and Lusia both pull out small black books which contained the names of those they knew and loved. Stransky and Berman perfectly deliver this scene, as they go through the lists of names to update each other on the individuals’ whereabouts. The answers, of course, are often tragic. This scene embodies the power and weight of A SHAYNA MAIDEL.
Yet the play offers up glimmers of hope. Lusia copes with her new life in New York by envisioning what it would be like if her loved ones made their way to America. In flashbacks, we see Lusia interacting with her dear Mama, portrayed with fitting sweetness by Silkaitis. We also see Lusia with her childhood best friend Hanna (the loving and fittingly mischievous Sarah Wisterman), who clearly became a surrogate sister. And above all, Lusia longs to know what became of her beloved husband Duvid (Alex Stein). Berman and Stein have beautiful, natural onstage chemistry, which makes audiences hold out hope all the more for Duvid’s survival.
A SHAYNA MAIDEL tells a heart-wrenching story of survival. The play is often devastating and intensely emotional, but it is also rife with pure moments of human connection-especially between Sudia and Berman as the two sisters reunite.
A SHAYNA MAIDEL plays through November 4 at Timeline Theatre Company, 615 West Wellington. Tickets are $40-$54. Visit Timelinetheatre.com.
Please note: Bri Sudia continues in the role of Rose Weiss through 10/21, with Emily Glick taking over 10/22.
Read the original review on BroadwayWorld.com.