TimeLine Theatre’s “A Shayna Maidel” echoes with ghosts. Barbara Lebow’s drama plays out primarily in New York City shortly after the end of World War II, but the phantoms of the past are everywhere. Snippets of lullabies and screams, thundering hooves, shattered glass, laughter that sounds eerily like weeping create an audio scrim. It’s as elusive as ether, but casts a pall over everything that happens. Directed by Vanessa Stalling, TimeLine Theatre’s story of sisters separated by war is haunted.
‘A Shayna Maidel’
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington
Run time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermission
The war is over when “A Shayna Maidel” begins, but its impact propels the plot. Lebow begins the story in the dead of night. Rose White (Bri Sudia), is a young woman living in New York. She’s single, working and reveling in a modern apartment that includes a dishwasher, a washing machine and an electric heater. Rose (nee Raisa Weiss) is jolted from slumber by her demanding, imperious father Mordechai (Charles Stransky) . There’s been a miracle, Mordechai says: Rose’s sister Lusia, left behind with her mother in Poland when Mordechai brought Rose to the United States years earlier, has been found. Lusia (Emily Berman) is coming to New York. Rose is charged with taking in a sibling of whom she has no memory.
Lebow fills in the details with dialogue that makes the exposition as natural as breath. Rose was four when Mordechai brought her to America. Lusia had scarlet fever, and stayed behind in Poland with her mother. Mordechai’s final promise to his wife and ailing daughter: He’d return for them. When the Depression hit, Mordechai’s plans were postponed. When Hitler came to power, Lusia and her mother vanished.
Immeasurably aided by composer/sound designer Jeffrey Levin’s evocative work, the family’s journey buffets the audience between tragedy and triumph. The opening scene, shadowy, candlelit and breathlessly suspenseful, lays the groundwork. Mordechai’s birth is accompanied by the thundering hooves of Cossacks and the shattering glass of a pogrom. Baby Mordechai never cries, which provides context for the brutal toughness that Stransky brings to Mordechai in middle age.
When the Lusia arrives in New York, the horrors she endured during the war are stamped on her face and body, broadcast like a silent billboard. Berman has eyes like saucers and a shell-shocked, thousand-yard stare. Lusia is gaunt, ashen, and prone to compulsively cleaning. She is also unbreakable. When she opens her little black book of lists and begins reading the names and fates of extended family members, she brings an impassive but unmistakable power to the names. Lusia has a spine forged in fire, and in Berman’s performance, it radiates from within.
She’s matched by Sudia’s Rose, who is at once understated and magnificent. Rose’s anger about taking in a sister who is a stranger to her and her anger at her father’s insistent, uncompromising demands are easy to empathize with. So is her survivor’s guilt, which is deeply complicated by the fact that Rose has no memory of her early years in Poland.
The play’s title translates to “a pretty girl,” a description that takes on a melancholic tone when it’s used to describe Rose and Lusia’s mother (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) and Lusia’s best friend Hanna (Sarah Wisterman). Silkaitis depicts a woman whose uncompromising belief in God and God’s plans gives her strength and leads to her downfall. Wisterman’s Hanna is the luminous, loving and mischievous best friend every young woman needs.
Costume designer Samantha C. Jones’ marvelous work subtly points to the growing connection between Rose and Lusia. In their first scene together, Lusia is wearing the dull, sallow colors of dun and iron. Sudia is decked out in a bright floral print. As they begin to trust each other, both women are in roses: The flowers are patterned on Lusia’s apron, and pink-sprayed over Rose’s dress. When they go through a box of old family photos, the stage is marked by visual cues linking them together. Both women are wearing pink floral prints. There’s a pink-flowered coverlet in the bedroom behind them. In the kitchen, flowered curtains hang from the sink. The effect is muted but unmistakable. These woman are connected, and surrounded by their connections.
Connections between family members and between the past and the present define “A Shayna Maidel.” It’s filled with tragedy, but it is also a story of survival and strength.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.