Within These Walls

Theater mainstay Talia Pura takes on the cyclicality of history with new World War II stage drama, ‘The Walls Have Ears’

Talia Pura has a reputation as a one-stop theatrical and cinematic shop. A frequent performer of one-woman shows, Pura’s decades-long resume contains the kind of multiple-hyphenated creative roles that add up to more or less ultimate artistic control. Her production of The Walls Have Ears, opening this week at Teatro Paraguas, stands to change that.

Don’t get us wrong: Pura still serves as the drawing room drama’s director, producer and co-star. But the script, a joint creation originated by her fellow local dramatist Jerry Labinger presents a timely literary partnership.

“I’ve worked with [Labinger] for about four years, and what we normally do is, he gives me some scripts, I have one or two rehearsals and we put it on stage for a live audience,” Pura tells SFR. “But this is our very first full length, actual production. He brought me something that was not quite a full length play, wasn’t quite long enough. And really, what I did is expand it so that the grain of the scene was there, but we opened it up. But [it’s] completely Jerry’s story.”

Labinger’s narrative stems from real incidents in his paternal family history. Pura plays Tsurah, a woman living far from the front in the relative safety of World War II Tashkent, Uzbekistan, when the siege of Leningrad forces relatives in the blockaded city to escape or risk starvation. She offers to house her family while the siege continues. But as days turn to months, the stress of confinement begins to eat away at the increasingly crowded household. The audience experiences that claustrophobia along with the characters, as the action takes place (with the exception of a single brief marketplace scene) in the living room Tsurah shares with her husband and daughter.

“In the beginning, it’s Tsurah’s sanctuary,” Pura explains. “She’s filled her entire house with all these relatives, and they’re forbidden to be in the living room. It becomes sort of a symbol for everything that’s going on in the house.”

Given that limited setting and The Walls Have Ears’ focus on female experiences of World War II, the audience will find it easy to connect the work to the many stage adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank (or the new miniseries A Small Light about Miep Gies, who hid the Franks). But while there’s a young Jewish girl among the many relatives sheltering in Tsurah’s house, unlike Anne Frank, the characters in Pura and Labinger’s story are not hiding from Nazis. Instead, they are threatened by security forces from the Soviet Union—then allies of the United States.

“The irony there is that Stalin’s armies are fighting the Nazis,” Pura points out. “And so part of this story is also what happens to a character that runs afoul of the rules about how Stalin has set up society.”

Pura describes the play’s historical context with familiarity. She’s had plenty of time to research: Walls was originally scheduled to debut at defunct teen arts center Warehouse 21 back in 2019, before both the pandemic and the performance space’s shutdown.

“The first day of full time rehearsals for us, [costar] Brent [Black] sent me an email with an image and said, ‘this is what came up as my memory from exactly four years ago today,’” Pura recalls. “It was us on stage, doing this play as a reading.”

In the intervening years, some of the project’s original cast moved away or left the production. Others remained from the beginning—and Pura and Labinger continued to tailor the script to their performers as they waited for live theater to feel safe again.

“You start hearing that person’s voice on the page,” Pura confesses. “It’s unlike any project I’ve ever done before. I related to the story so much, and acknowledging the voice that it was already written in, it was easy to get into the mindset of the characters that [Labinger] created.”

The additional time spent with those characters has no doubt deepened Pura’s understanding of them, and the production’s delay clearly brought her artistic relationship with Labinger into new and fruitful collaborative territory. But this timing has had one other effect on the project. Now Walls’ world premiere coincides with another war being fought along Russian borders.

“We’re leaving it completely in a historical context,” Pura notes. “We’re not drawing any parallels to the modern world. We’re not adding any little touches. You really don’t need to.”

The Walls Have Ears: 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday; 2 pm Sunday, April 28-May 7. $15-$20. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie Ste. B, (505) 424-1601

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