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Shayna Maidel tells a poignant tale with universal appeal

A Shayna Maidel
Written by Barbara Lebow.
Directed by Alan Brody.
The New Repertory Theatre.
Feb. 20 thru March 29.

By William Chuang

A Shayna Maidel opened in 1985 and has been a hit around the country ever since. The New Repertory Theater's presentation continues this tradition. The ability to appreciate this powerful drama is not limited to the Jewish community, as some may believe. This play will appeal to people of all ages and religions.

A Shayna Maidel tells the story of two sisters separated since childhood and reunited twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the play opens, we are introduced to the younger sister, Rose (Pamela Shafer), who has spent nearly all her life in New York and remembers little about her sister or her family's native Poland. Rose wears makeup, jewelry, and attractive clothes, has her own apartment, dates, and is in all respects "Americanized." Her conservative father, Mordechai Weiss (Dick Rosenfeld), visits her one morning with the surprise news that he has finally found her long-lost sister Lusia (Stephanie Clayman), and that she will be coming to New York City by boat fairly soon.

Lusia unexpectedly arrives early by plane. When Rose first meets her sister, the audience is presented with a study in contrasts: Lusia is wearing muted, homely clothes and no makeup, carrying a small worn suitcase, and has a rigid, stolid look on her face; much different from the dress and demeanor of her vibrant sister. Her speech is halting, slipping from broken English into her more comfortable Yiddish and back again (this detracts nothing from understanding the play). In addition, an ID number has been branded prominently onto her forearm, a constant reminder that she has survived the Holocaust and years of imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps.

Rose and Lusia are at first very uncomfortable together, but gradually become closer as they share stories and memories. At the outset, their roles are reversed, and Rose acts as an older sister to Lusia, cooking and caring for her; this and related incidents evoke several of Lusia's flashbacks of her mother "Mama" (played by Barbara Dooneief Haas), her childhood friend Hanna (Chandra Pieragostini), and her husband Duvid Pechenik (Andrew Michael Dolan). From flashbacks, the audience is treated to glimpses of the upbeat humor and calm, collected intelligence of Duvid, and also to his romance with a young Lusia.

Eventually Lusia's earlier years begin to fall into place: early on, Mordechai took the young Rose to the United States, but her mother had to stay behind in Poland to take care of Lusia, who was then sick with scarlet fever. The family was separated by the war and concentration camps, where Mama and many relatives died, and Lusia was separated from Duvid. Soon after she and Hanna were freed from the camps by Russian soldiers, Hanna died of typhus. Now alone, Lusia has emigrated to the States, to find the remnants of her family and hopefully Duvid as well.

Lusia is angry at Mordechai, her father, for all that happened to her mother. There is a quietly disturbing scene in which Lusia and her father trade information about the whereabouts (and deaths) of loved ones, while Rose listens in, confused at their apparent calmness. Afterwards, Lusia openly accuses Mordechai of refusing to borrow money to get Mama out of Poland; he stridently refutes this. Sadly, he produces a long-kept picture of his wife. He leaves and Lusia is alone on stage. She inks an ID number on her own forearm, providing one of the most moving moments in the play.

There are six actors in this drama, all of whom turn in excellent performances. Pamela Shafer perfectly conveys Rose's early confusion and her growing awareness of the suffering and pain her sister has gone through. As Mordechai Weiss, Dick Rosenfeld portrays a quintessential Jewish father, conservative and commanding, yet he also comfortably portrays Mordechai's sensitive side. Andrew Michael Dolan is perfect as Duvid, a fountain of upbeat humor and intelligence when young, and somber and all seriousness (like Lusia) after the Holocaust.

Stephanie Clayman is key as Lusia; her austere, quiet demeanor is solid throughout, as well as somewhat frightening. Clayman superbly acts out the quick changes in some flashbacks, and is very convincing as both a young girl and a hardened older woman. Quality acting is critical to the success of this play, and the members of this company pull it off beautifully.

The New Repertory Theater itself is a small, intimate theater, seating about 75 people. The proximity of the audience can only benefit performances, and the director takes full advantage of this, having the actors deliver their powerful speeches only a few feet from the audience's faces. This partial invasion of the audience's private space lends to the illusion that one is a part of this drama, not merely an observer.

The costumes, created by Frances Nelson McSherry, are wonderful. Mordechai and Rose's clothes are reminiscent of the late 1940's, while both Duvid and Lusia's clothing are somber and muted, similar to their characters. The lighting is also expertly done. The use of reddish light to suggest flashbacks is skillful, allowing the plot to flow from present to past to present again with ease.

My review cannot do justice to the feelings and emotions of this drama, nor to the complex interactions between the characters. Therefore, to fully appreciate this superb production, you should go see it yourself. The 15 minute trip from the Hynes Convention Center/ICA T stop out to Newton Highlands will definitely be worth it.