Theater review: Mesmerizing performances enrich TimeLine Theatre's 'Shayna Maidel'
"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 (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.
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.)
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.
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.
Running time: About 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Limited metered street parking and paid lots
Rating: For teens and older