“It is God’s will.” I have heard this. You have heard this. But is it said to explain the unexplainable? To make light of atrocities? Or to assuage further discussion and questions on a topic of magnitude? I think it is all of the above. But it is most troubling on the lips of the Jewish people in this play who are speaking from beyond the grave after they were murdered in the Holocaust.
“A Shayna Maidel” translates to a pretty girl in Yiddish. In this play, Papa (Alan Barnett) and his daughter Rose (Christie Smith) live in Brooklyn, NY. But they have just located their long-lost sister overseas, Lusia (Emilie Zelle Holmstock). She survived the Holocaust and is being reunited with her family- which sounds optimistic? There’s a lot of unpacking and backstory here- why are sister and dad in New York and this sister isn’t? Where’s mom? Why is half this family prosperous and successful and half tattooed and succumbing to the horrors of concentration camps? This play goes to all these places and uncovers tons of material in its duration.
Set Design by Gaya Sel is useful and appropriate. There seems to be a number of stairs though, and although there is comedy in watching Christie Smith navigate all of them in her slip on fuzzy heels, it seems a bit cumbersome. Lighting Designer Mark Reamer is really the stand out here with the burning Nazi symbol on the wall, and then dually mimicking harsh red tones to reincarnate those souls lost to Holocaust.
The centerpiece of this work is Lusia, aptly played by the doe-eyed Emilie Zelle Holmstock. She has to constantly flip from a strong Polish accent with broken English, to perfect English in flashbacks and it seemed quite a tremendous undertaking. She is vulnerable but hopeful, broken by spirited, honest but gullible. Her charm and near tears face are what seal her excellence as the star in this performance. Her sister, Rose, Christie Smith is fun to watch as well. Her dresses were lovely, and her physicality were apt- her accent seemed to slip a few times in and out of 1940s Brooklyn.
Mama was Hillary Mazer in her headscarf and chiding Jewish mother mannerisms. Her story is heart-wrenching, but filled with some memorable sweet times as well- the dancing with Papa, and the cooking for make-shift sister Hanna and Lusia. Hanna, Anna Adelstein, looks similar to Christie Smith, Rose, and that is the point. Hanna seems to be a replacement for the child she sent overseas with Papa to avoid persecution. Mama and Lusia would have gone too, except Lusia developed Scarlet Fever, thus dissecting the family.
Alan Barnett as Mordechai, or Papa, is lovely and keeps his accent and energy from the first line to the last. He is lovable, and at times, hated, but his character remains steadfast in its convictions, and this is an achievement as an actor. Duvid is played by David Shoemaker- Lusia’s husband that she lost track of during the concentration camps. She checks religiously to see if his name appears on the survivors or deceased list- and prays for his safe recovery. He pops in and out of her dream sequences while she manifests her hopes in vignettes that are a mash up of the past and future. Shoemaker is raw and easy going here, and quite charming as Lusia’s long-lost love.
One of the most powerful scenes in the play is when Papa pulls out his list of relatives, and compares notes with Lusia’s list- hearing how many died and how. She witnessed the demise of most of her family- while to him, it is a shame to scratch names off the list- but what can you do? Maybe more than you think Mordechai.
The run time on the show is a bit long, 2 hours and 15 minutes with one ten-minute intermission. But the biggest downside was the silent waiting while actors changed costumes. No one is credited in the program for costumes- and although they were lovely and true to the era, I think some well-placed cardigans could have cut down on this lag time while making up for “next day” outfits. Smith’s hair was also enviable but no one is listed for doing it- too bad- I might hire them to make mine do the same.
I also found it odd that there was no pre-show music- just silence. Yet some soundtrack was used to fill the time while actors changed backstage.
My only question for playwright Barbara Lebow is about the authenticity of a single woman in the 1940s having her own apartment in Brooklyn. I get that her father is well-off, and she has a job, but it seems unlikely for the time period. Maybe I am wrong- I am sure someone will tell me in the comments (lol).
Director Melissa McGinley isn’t afraid to let us watch as trauma unravels before our eyes. She keeps Lusia in the verge of tears and reminds us, harshly, of what was and the devastation in caused just this one family, and millions and millions of others.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? The Strand is the only female-centric theater in Baltimore and this play is a stand out. It was Off-Broadway for years and there is a reason. McGinley has assembled quite a cast and pulled off a troubling, thought-provoking piece about fate, tragedy, and a dark spot in our history- the Holocaust. She also injects snippets of humor, keeps it era appropriate, and makes us all leave a little shaken. (I)
Running time two hours and fifteen minutes with one ten-minute intermission. Running at the The Strand through November 3rd.