Realist theater strains credibility. A Shayna Maidel (Yiddish for "a pretty girl"), the two-act play currently onstage at Theaterwork, clunks up against this credibility gap, despite excellent, impassioned performances, convincing attention to detail and skilled direction.
***image1***The trick that makes realist theater tick is absolute naturalness, a severe discipline requiring nothing less than the complete embodiment of a character on the part of an actor-a challenging task made somewhat easier by believable writing. This is the kind of mastery displayed in the best of O'Neill, Williams, Pinter, Ibsen and Chekhov. The cast of A Shayna Maidel delivers moving performances, despite Barbara Lebow's uneven and jarringly clichéd script.
Alexandra Reifarth, for example, plays the part of Holocaust survivor Lusia Weiss Pechenik and crafts a layered, intelligent, dynamic and ultimately moving performance. Reifarth subtly conveys the impact of Lusia's harrowing experiences (the traumas of starvation; displacement; the deaths of her best friend, mother and daughter; the arrest and disappearance of her husband). She also portrays Lusia's gradual combined healing and assimilation into ***image2***1940s postwar New York, resonant through gesture, posture and delivery. Yet the role as written by Lebow periodically strands Reifarth in either melodrama or stereotype, all the more disconcerting due to the intensity of the character's suffering: Lusia refuses to wear a coat, or obsessively cleans a coffee table, or won't eat, or undoes the tonsorial ministrations of her sister, all of which makes for blunt, shapeless stage business. Still, Reifarth resiliently and repeatedly rescues the character of Lusia, insisting on emotional impact, transcending Lebow's ponderous inanities.
The story centers on the Weiss family, torn asunder by the Holocaust, with Mama (Ketevan KH Ussery) and Lusia left behind in Poland, and patriarch Mordechai (Dan Friedman) and daughter Rose (Vanessa Rios y Valles) safely established in New York before the war. Rose is a single career woman living in her own small apartment, and the events of the play unfold around the arrival of the last surviving member of the family, Lusia, from Poland.
As Rose, Rios y Valles is at her best when she is the chipper, spoiled career woman blissfully unaware of the suffering and demise of nine-tenths of her family, fraught with selfish anxiety over the prospect of her sister's arrival as a guest in her apartment. Inevitably, Rose learns the truth, and the process of these unfolding revelations saddles Rios y Valles with a series of melodramatic devices: hallucinating the wailing of Lusia's baby, drawing a concentration camp tattoo on her arm with a black marker, finally releasing into grief only when she has hold of a letter from her dead mother and her baby spoon via a box delivered by "a Countess." Rios y Valles gives these tasks a valiant effort, and the blame for their awkwardness falls squarely on Lebow.
Dan Friedman as Mordechai is perhaps the most short-changed. More caricature than character, Lebow's concept of the patriarch is flat and unrelentingly familiar, more Woody Allen self-parody than flesh-and-blood father.
However, with focused pacing, energetic and dedicated performances and detailed set design, A Shayna Maidel moves and satisfies the audience. There wasn't a dry eye in the house at the play's conclusion, a real tribute to the skills of the cast and director David Olson, as well as yet another testament to the enduring power of Holocaust stories to encapsulate unimaginable loss and heroic healing.