Families Reconnecting and Guilt – “A Shayna Maidel” at Playhouse on Park Explores It All

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By Karen Isaacs

Family crises are often thought of in terms of divorce, feuds and deaths. But what happens to families when guilt is a major dynamic? Regret?  Blame?

For the family in A Shayna Maidel those are all present in large supply. The play, now at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through Nov. 17 tells the story of the Weiss family.

It is 1946 and Rose, the younger daughter (about 20) is living a comfortable life in New York City. With a job, an apartment and several beaus, she has gotten out from under her stern and domineering father’s thumb. That is, until the day he announces her older sister has been “found,” will be arriving by boat and that he expects Rose to invite her to live in the apartment (even give her bed) and take a leave from her job to care for her.

Why? Luisa, the sister, has survived the concentration camps where Rose’s mother and dozens of other relatives have perished.

Rose and her father (Mitch Greenberg) had emigrated in 1930; she was just four and her sister would have come with them but had caught scarlet fever. After that, for the father at least, the time was never right to bring his wife and Luisa to America, until it was too late.

Playwright Barbara Lebow has written a touching family drama about two sisters reconnecting with little in common. Rose barely remembers either Luisa or their mother; Luisa cannot forget her experiences or that her father abandoned her.

Lebow interweaves scenes from the past and sometimes fantasies with events in the present. Thus, we see Luisa’s fantasies of being with her husband, Duvid, as well as memories of her friend and her mother. Even Rose begins to slowly remember things from her early childhood.

The idea behind this play should make for a compelling drama, but some flaws in the play itself and in the overall direction, ends with a less satisfying theatrical experience.

Lebow has an initial scene set in Poland in 1876 showing the birth of Mordechai Weiss. Not only is it confusing – who are these people in a modern apartment bedroom, giving birth, but why is the scene necessary?

We then are immediately in Rose’s apartment and the real story begins. Lebow also has chronology problems. If Rose was 4 when they left Poland in 1930, then in 1946 she is just 20 years old. Yet she is living on her own in a three room apartment in NYC with an unspecified job. Even in 1946, apartments were hard to find and expensive; it’s unlikely Rose would be able to afford the apartment, as well as fully furnish it.

If you are going to have recollected or memory scenes and if you are to have scenes that are dreams or fantasies, the two must be clearly differentiated by the director. Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has not been able to effectively do this. Perhaps it is the large playing area or the lighting possibilities in the theater, but it was often difficult to know when we were moving backward in time to a remembered event and when it was fantasy or mirage.

Another problem was the pace of the play. It needed to move along faster; this production was over two and a half hours.

Despite the flaws, the acting was very good. Mitch Greenberg as Modechai has the more two dimensional character; he is demanding and expects to be obeyed and not to be questioned. Greenberg does manage to reveal a bit of his sense of guilt for what has happened, but only a bit. This is a man who cannot admit he made a mistake that destroyed his immediate family.

Laura Sudduth as Rose is excellent as the cheerful and thoroughly Americanized young woman, who can’t say no to her father.  As she begins to recover memories of Poland and her mother, you see her maturing in front of your eyes. As Luisa, Katharina Schmidt is also excellent; Luisa is not broken but determined; she’d like answers, and she is willing to confront her father.

A Shayna Maidel, which means beautiful girl in Yiddish, is a play about family, connections and understanding one another. While it is touching, you wish both the playwright and this production had done more with it.

For tickets visit Playhouse on Park or call 860-523-5900.

 

 

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