Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
Pictured (l-r): Emily Berman and Bri Sudia. Photo by Lara Goetsch.
By Elizabeth Ellis
Do we need to revisit historical plays that can be heavy, sad, a downer, a bummer? To paraphrase George Santayana, if we don’t learn from history, we’ll probably repeat it. Recent events in our country show that this is unfortunately true, and while the drama may weigh heavily on us, we need to know the conflict and tragedies, that have brought us to our present. TimeLine Theatre’s gorgeous and heartfelt production of Barbara Lebow’s A SHAYNA MAIDEL shows how family can survive the worst of what humanity can do to each other, and still learn from and love each other.
Translated from the Yiddish, “a shayna maidel” means “a pretty girl.” This sweet and simple phrase brings to mind innocence and beauty, a stunning counterpoint to the global destruction of World War II that can still be felt today. Polish-born patriarch Mordechai Weiss (played with overbearing inflexibility by Charles Stransky) managed to emigrate to the US and escape the horrors of the Holocaust with his youngest daughter, the then-four-year-old Reizl. While the original plan was for his wife and elder daughter Lusia to join them, Lusia contracted scarlet fever and had to stay behind with her mother. By the time Lusia had recovered, the Nazis had made it impossible for Jews to leave.
At the beginning of the play, it’s 1946 in New York City, and Mordechai has established himself as a successful businessman. Reizl (the luminous and complex Bri Sudia) has bleached her name to Rose and is an independent American woman — she has a job and lives in a comfortable apartment with all the modern conveniences. Mordechai visits one day and informs Rose that her sister Lusia survived Auschwitz, is coming to New York, and will stay with Rose. Understandably, Rose is taken aback — to her, Lusia is a relative in name only, since Rose has no memory of her. Unwilling to disobey Mordechai, Rose agrees.
When Lusia (the astonishing and heartbreaking Emily Berman) arrives, the contrast between them is stark and immediate. Rose, energetic and the glowing picture of health, in no way resembles Lusia, the quiet, gaunt, and reserved survivor dressed in borrowed old clothes, whose haunted eyes give a glimpse of the horrors she has witnessed. Lusia even says that she won’t wear a coat in the chilly weather; “I want to be cold, like the dead ones.” She tries her best to adapt herself to a new family, as well as begin to heal from unimaginable terror for a completely foreign new life and culture. Rose also makes contact with local relief agencies to see if she can find out if her husband, Duvid, survived and if he has, where they can reunite. In her moments alone, Lusia retreats to a world of loving and happy visions and memories before the war with her mother (the adorable Carin Schapiro Silkaitis), her beloved Duvid (the charming Alex Stein) and her best friend, Hanna (the gamine Sarah Wisterman). Rose tentatively engages this strange new person in her life and in her home, and as they grow to know each other, and share in the tragically missing parts of their family and sisterhood, they come to love each other.
One of the most heart-wrenching moments in the play occurs when Mordecai produces a small notebook to share with Lusia the names of their extended family members in Poland, whose whereabouts are unknown. Lusia produces a list of her own names, and confirms the fates of many of them. Most are dead, including Mordechai’s wife, and Lusia’s infant daughter: murdered in locations all too familiar by now, like Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen (this hoping against hope for good news brought to mind the days and weeks after September 11, when so much of the area around the fallen World Trade Center morphed into a sad, crowded community billboard with names, Xeroxed pictures, and last known locations of missing loved ones). Mordechai also has to come to terms with his own complicity in the delay in bringing his wife and Lusia over — had he not been so deeply opposed to accepting a loan from a friend to finance their freedom, Lusia and her mother might have made it out of Europe alive. Mordechai also gives Rose a letter from her mother, secreted away by a non-Jewish friend so it would hopefully escape discovery. This beautiful letter connects Rose to the mother she so longed for and doesn’t remember, and reminds Lusia of the wonderful woman who she lost. It also reminds us that beauty and hope can arise from the ashes of pain and loss.
Director Vanessa Stalling smartly avoids the easy path of playing the potential overwrought melodrama inherent in such a layered and difficult story. Instead, her actors, particularly Sudia and Berman, make the simplest, most genuine choices. This results in the kind of honest and compelling performances that stay in the audience’s minds long after the show ends. Collette Pollard’s beautiful set is period accurate, down to the schnapps decanter and glasses, and the teal-toned accents in the kitchen. Rachel K. Levy’s lighting design and Jeffrey Levin’s sound design expertly transport the audience between Rose’s bright and fast-paced life, and Lusia’s world of warm, loving dreams and cruel and painful memories.
In the vein of learning from history, Lusia wearily shares a thought that still holds true today: “Everything the Nazis will do will be worse, never better.” A SHAYNA MAIDEL displays many challenging and painful moments and harsh truths from the recent past, but ultimately shows the resilient power of family and love.
A SHAYNA MAIDEL runs through November 4th. For more information visit timelinetheatre.com.