By Vicki Paris Goodman
A shayna maidel– in Yiddish it means “a pretty girl.”
Imagine how pretty you would feel as a young Jewish woman from Poland having survived Auschwitz or Dachau. Would you feel lucky to have survived? Arguable. But pretty?
You are more than half-starved, but gaining strength after your post-war hospital stay. You don’t know if your husband is still alive. You speak little English. You come to an unfamiliar America to reunite with the younger sister and father you hardly remember. Such is the case of Lusia.
A Shayna Maidel, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by Shashin Desai, is really about two pretty “girls.”
As Lusia, actress Liza de Weerd masterfully oscillates between, in flashbacks, a happy pre-holocaust girl approaching womanhood and, later, a damaged young woman whose dreams understandably haunt her by night. But mostly she projects a willingness, if not quite a desire, to move forward in her strange new life with a family she no longer knows.
The beautifully detailed set, made warm and inviting by scenic designer Stephen Gifford, is the 1940s New York apartment occupied by Lusia’s sister Rose, who has grown up in America. Rose, portrayed with a lovely and compassionate grace by Laura Howard, is the consummate American working girl.
When Papa (Larry Eisenberg), the appropriately demanding Jewish patriarch from the old country, informs Rose that Lusia is coming and pronounces that she will stay with her younger sister, Rose’s ambivalence is palpable. On the one hand, she is overjoyed to be meeting her elder sister. On the other, she is overwhelmed by what she foresees as an impossible imposition on her promising young life.
A Shayna Maidel is, in one sense, a story of family relationships, of love and of sacrifice. But it is also about beauty, decency and kindness.
As Rose, Lusia and Papa struggle to find their equilibrium as a family, they heal as individuals.
If only I could describe yet another character’s dramatic transformation, but I dare not risk spoiling the most compelling moment of the play.
Suffice it to say that remaining cast members Julia Silverman, Erin Anne Williams and Charles Pasternak, as Lusia’s husband Duvid, complete an exceptional casting ensemble.
As for Desai’s direction, it takes its time, never rushing a moving scene or poignant moment, of which there are many. Hence, the audience is permitted to take in the full impact of every emotion this richly woven play has to offer.
A Shayna Maidel– a pretty girl– is a pretty spectacular evening of theater.
A Shayna Maidel continues at International City Theatre through July 3. Tickets are $37–$42 for Friday and Saturday evening performances, and for Saturday and Sunday matinees; tickets are $32–$37 for Thursday evening performances. Evening performances are at 8pm; Sunday matinees are at 2pm, with one Saturday matinee scheduled for 2pm on July 3. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 East Ocean Blvd. Call (562) 436-4610 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available at InternationalCityTheatre.org.