Playhouse on Park made a strong choice in focusing on women playwrights, characters, actors, and directors in its 11th season, and Barbara Lebow’s beautiful play, “A Shayna Maidel,” directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro, is an especially welcome addition. “A Shayna Maidel” (Yiddish for “a pretty girl”) is an intelligent, heartbreaking, but ultimately affirming tale that balances the horrors of the Holocaust with the unique circumstances of two sisters and their father struggling to form a family.
Set in Brooklyn, 1946, the plot opens with Rose Weiss (Laura Sudduth) and her father, Mordechai Weiss (a terrific Mitch Greenberg) awaiting the arrival of Rose’s older sister, Lusia Weiss Pechenik (the luminous Katharina Schmidt), who survived a concentration camp and has finally made her way to America. Rose and her father left Poland when Rose was four, but Lusia couldn’t travel due to illness, so she and Mama stayed behind until Lusia recovered and Mordechai could send for them. But too soon the rise of the Nazi party cut off any chance of escape.
At the point when Rose and Lusia meet, Rose is thoroughly assimilated, a young working woman, outwardly confident but constantly attempting to simultaneously please and stand up to her demanding, controlling, and emotionally cold father.
Lusia, as one might imagine, is Rose’s opposite. She refuses to part with her refugee clothing, speaks halting English, and answers her father’s distance with a simmering anger of her own. She refuses to talk with Rose about their mother or the past and is consumed by the determination to find her husband, Duvid (a touching Alex Rafala), whom she insists must have survived the camps and also made his way to New York.
Lebow’s play lays the groundwork for the sisters’ eventual love, but she includes numerous obstacles and surprises as we get to know Rose and Lusia through flashbacks, dream sequences, and the intimacy that develops from sharing a home and resisting a father’s seeming unkindness, though Mordechai is anything but a cardboard villain.
Schmidt’s Lusia is the shining light of this production, and reason enough to see it. Every emotion and gesture rings true, and beyond that, she brings a passion to the role that takes us straight into her heart. Lusia may be nearly broken in the present, but we see her true nature during the flashbacks, in which her Yiddish is translated, for the audience, into fluent English. Here is a funny, playful young girl who adores her mother and her best friend, Hannah (Krista Lucas), and who sparkles, especially, when she is with her sweetheart, Duvid. Schmidt and Rafala have gorgeous chemistry, and their games of teasing and chasing each other, rolling on the sofa like kittens, and then finding that their friendship has deepened into love show us the magic they once had.
Greenberg, in his first moments, nails the dapper, cold Mordechai and our stereotype of such a man. And, as we learn, late in the action, about what that coldness hides, Greenberg is just as believable, though he never goes soft. Alex Rafala’s Duvid is as skillful as Schmidt in portraying youthful buoyancy, mirth, and desire.
Loveland Navarro has made a few casting and directing missteps, chiefly in presenting us a Rose Weiss who is so American and so physically dissimilar from Schmidt’s Lusia that it’s difficult to see the two as related. Certainly Rose’s life has been entirely different from her sister’s, but she needs to echo either her father or Lusia in some respects, which Sudduth’s Rose does not.
“A Shayna Maidel” takes place entirely in Rose’s apartment, though that apartment at times represents other places. As designed by David Lewis, the apartment is quite well appointed, and one could argue that even a successful young woman could not afford such a place. However, this was Brooklyn in the 1940’s, and from a theatrical point of view, Lewis makes certain that the action never feels cramped. Too, he and Loveland Navarro are mostly careful with the sightlines, so the audience rarely misses a moment.
Marcus Abbott’s lighting design deftly moves the action forward and back in time, and Lisa Ann Steier’s costumes perfectly capture each character. This is a handsome production.
Most importantly, though, this is a production of a remarkable play that should be seen more often, and Playhouse on Park brings to the stage three of the finest performances of this season so far. We can forget, sometimes, that irony is not always our best companion, and that genuine feeling and true catharsis can truly renew the spirit. You will find catharsis here.
“A Shayna Maidel” continues at Playhouse on Park through November 17. For tickets ($27.50-$40), call the Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Avenue, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext.10 or online at playhouseonpark.org. Performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. followed by a talk back with the cast.