Theater review: Mesmerizing performances enrich TimeLine Theatre's 'Shayna Maidel'

 
 
Updated 8/31/2018 5:37 PM
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  • Emily Berman, left, and Bri Sudia play sisters who try to reconnect after the Holocaust in TimeLine Theatre Company's revival of "A Shayna Maidel."

    Emily Berman, left, and Bri Sudia play sisters who try to reconnect after the Holocaust in TimeLine Theatre Company's revival of "A Shayna Maidel." Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

  • Sisters Rose (Bri Sudia), left, and Lusia (Emily Berman) reconcile around their shared loss in TimeLine Theatre's revival of "A Shayna Maidel" by Barbara Lebow.

    Sisters Rose (Bri Sudia), left, and Lusia (Emily Berman) reconcile around their shared loss in TimeLine Theatre's revival of "A Shayna Maidel" by Barbara Lebow. Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

"A Shayna Maidel" -- ★ ★ ★

During rehearsals for TimeLine Theatre Company's consummately acted revival of the family drama "A Shayna Maidel," Charles Stransky admitted that he would get distracted by castmates Emily Berman and Bri Sudia.

Berman and Sudia play Lusia and Rose, Jewish sisters who were separated during the Holocaust and reunite in New York City a year after World War II ends. Stransky plays their father, Mordechai Weiss.

In an interview, Stransky described the women as "mesmerizing," and he's right. Separately or together, when Berman and Sudia are on stage it is impossible to look away.

Written in 1984, "A Shayna Maidel" -- which translates to "a pretty girl" -- is as current as the headlines describing the situation at our southern border. It's a story about grief and guilt, trauma and recovery and family members reconciling in the wake of inconceivable atrocities.

It begins with a miracle.

Mordechai (Charles Stransky) and daughters Lusia (Emily Berman), left, and Rose (Bri Sudia), right, reflect on their lives in Poland and the absent Mama (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) in "A Shayna Maidel," running through Nov. 4 at TimeLine Theatre.
Mordechai (Charles Stransky) and daughters Lusia (Emily Berman), left, and Rose (Bri Sudia), right, reflect on their lives in Poland and the absent Mama (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) in "A Shayna Maidel," running through Nov. 4 at TimeLine Theatre. - Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

Mordechai (an imposing Stransky) arrives at the apartment of his daughter Rose (a masterfully conflicted Sudia) in the middle of the night to inform her that her older sister Lusia, who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp with their mother during the war, has been found and is coming to the U.S. The overbearing patriarch insists Lusia will stay with Rose, who remembers neither her sister nor their mother (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis). Rose bristles initially, then resigns herself with the sobering reminder: "it could have been you, Rose."

The Weiss family intended to emigrate to the U.S. from Poland during the 1920s but Lusia contracted scarlet fever. She remained behind with Mama, while Mordechai left for America with Rose, promising to send for them. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the ensuing Holocaust -- during which Mama and Lusia were sent first to the ghetto and then to concentration camps -- ended any hoped-for reunions.

Lusia (Emily Berman) dreams of happier days with her missing husband, Duvid (Alex Stein), in TimeLine Theatre's "A Shayna Maidel."
Lusia (Emily Berman) dreams of happier days with her missing husband, Duvid (Alex Stein), in TimeLine Theatre's "A Shayna Maidel." - Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

Yet, Lusia (the haunting, genuine Berman) survived. In 1946, she appears, wide-eyed and traumatized, in Rose's cozy, cheery apartment (a spot-on period set by Colette Pollard). A fluttering Rose -- unnerved by her sister's earlier-than-expected arrival and unsure what to say -- promises to "put the roses back in your cheeks."

We watch as their relationship evolves from awkward and uncomfortable to familial, even conspiratorial. Late in the play, the sisters have an impromptu, not exactly kosher picnic on the living room floor. When their observant father arrives, they conspire to keep that detail from him during one of the play's most endearing (and funniest) scenes.

Lebow juxtaposes those scenes with Lusia's flashbacks to prewar days with her devoted Mama, best friend Hanna (the dynamic, affectionate Sarah Wisterman) and her beloved and still-missing husband, Duvid (Alex Stein). We watch as tragedy looms and witness -- in an achingly tense exchange between Berman and Silkaitis -- the depths of a mother's love and sacrifice. (Sudia's nuanced performance demonstrates the profound effect of her mother's absence. That's especially evident in her raw, agonized response when a long-awaited letter establishes the connection she lost.)

Lusia (Emily Berman), left, recalls the aftermath of the war with longtime friend Hanna (Sarah Wisterman) in TimeLine Theatre's revival of "A Shayna Maidel" by Barbara Lebow.
Lusia (Emily Berman), left, recalls the aftermath of the war with longtime friend Hanna (Sarah Wisterman) in TimeLine Theatre's revival of "A Shayna Maidel" by Barbara Lebow. - Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

In flashback, we watch the war end but not the suffering, the magnitude of which comes across in a quietly moving scene where Mordechai compares his list of missing family members with Lusia's list of their fates.

A beautifully performed scene, it's made sobering by Stransky's silent agony and Berman's detached delivery. Berman, one of the Chicago area's most distinctive musical theater artists, delivers a bravura performance as a traumatized, stubborn, resilient woman who does the unthinkable. She endures.

All of this unfolds to an evocative soundtrack by composer/sound designer Jeffrey Levin that ranges from murmurs and lullabies and laughter to thundering hooves, breaking glass and strangled cries.

In her playwright's notes, Lebow writes: "Any temptation to portray tragedy, sentiment or melodrama must be avoided at all costs." Director Vanessa Stalling follows those instructions to the letter.

While Rose (Bri Sudia), right, sleeps, Holocaust survivor Lusia (Emily Berman) dreams of reuniting with her missing husband (Alex Stein) in "A Shayna Maidel," running through Nov. 4 at TimeLine Theatre.
While Rose (Bri Sudia), right, sleeps, Holocaust survivor Lusia (Emily Berman) dreams of reuniting with her missing husband (Alex Stein) in "A Shayna Maidel," running through Nov. 4 at TimeLine Theatre. - Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

Stalling's production is a careful, yet emotionally charged one, free from false sentiment.

The play itself, however, missed some opportunities to address the issue of God's will, which Lebow raises several times. In addition, the ending felt inauthentic, fantastical even.

But the well-matched performances, particularly that of Sudia's blooming Rose and Berman's wilting Lusia, make up for it.

Note: Emily Glick takes over for Bri Sudia beginning Oct. 22.

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Location: 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, (773) 281-8463, ext. 6, or timeline theatre.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 4. Also 2 p.m. Sept. 20. No performance Sept. 19.

Tickets: $40-$54

Running time: About 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission

Parking: Limited metered street parking and paid lots

Rating: For teens and older

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