< Back to reviews page

Curtain Call

New York Times review:

The Theater: ''A Shayna Maidel'
By MEL GUSSOW
Published: October 30, 1987, Friday

LEAD: IN ''A Shayna Maidel,'' two sisters - one a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, the other brought up as an American -meet in 1946 after a separation of almost 20 years, and in the course of a heart-rending evening, they achieve an intimacy that transcends the theatrical event. Barbara Lebow's play is about the horrors of the

IN ''A Shayna Maidel,'' two sisters - one a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, the other brought up as an American -meet in 1946 after a separation of almost 20 years, and in the course of a heart-rending evening, they achieve an intimacy that transcends the theatrical event. Barbara Lebow's play is about the horrors of the Holocaust; it is also a deeply personalized study of sisterhood, family and a crisis of faith.

After previous productions at the Academy Theater in Atlanta, where Ms. Lebow is playwright in residence, and at the Hartford Stage, ''A Shayna Maidel'' arrived in New York, opening last night at the Westside Arts Theater. The play introduces New Yorkers to a talented dramatist and provides the impetus for two beautifully matched performances, by Gordana Rashovich and Melissa Gilbert as the sisters.

The author carefully avoids both sermonizing and sentimentality. As the survivor, Ms. Rashovich (repeating her role from Hartford) refuses to talk about her experiences in the camps. That period is burned into her eyes, and, having heard the stories and seen the pictures, we can ''read'' the memories on the actress's face. In one of a number of scenes that provoke an outpouring of tears from theatergoers, Ms. Rashovich watches as her stern, patriarchal father recites the names of Polish relatives, whose whereabouts are largely unknown. In a voice that resounds with certainty, she responds with her own list - and, for her, the whereabouts are known. The litany of the murdered includes her mother and her own infant daughter.

Moving among her characters and shifting back and forth in time, the playwright draws a comprehensive portrait of a family devastated by war, a portrait that remains specific even as it becomes emblematic. The sisters have been separated by more than time and distance. Here since she was 4 years old, Ms. Gilbert has become thoroughly Americanized, dressing like a working girl out of a 1940's movie and quietly fighting for a modicum of independence from her overbearing father.

Presented with the sudden arrival in her apartment of an older sister whom she does not remember, she is at first resistant, and covers her awkwardness with ebullience. By the end of the play, however, she has come full cycle, recognizing the symbiosis between the two and the fortuitousness that gave her a life of freedom and that sentenced her sibling to unconscionable torments. At the same time, Ms. Rashovich is resistant to any thought of assimilation, at least until she can fulfill her mission of tracking down her missing husband.

Under Mary B. Robinson's assured direction, both actresses are mutually responsive. Each watches the other with a kind of compulsive concern - as Ms. Rashovich is unable to rid herself of the pain of memory and as Ms. Gilbert is repeatedly demeaned by their rigid and demanding father.

The role of the father is equally consequential to the story, and it is here that Ms. Robinson's otherwise exacting production missteps. The father is self-involved to the point of being cruel. Affecting a dapper persona, he indulges himself while abdicating parental responsibility, but he is also a self-victimizer who has his private burden of guilt. In his performance, Paul Sparer misses the subtlety and the complexity of the character. The father's errors of omission, his neglect of his daughters (both in New York and in Europe) should speak for themselves.

The limits of that performance are outweighed by the truthfulness of the play and the conviction of Ms. Rashovich and Ms. Gilbert. In addition, there are helpful supporting performances by Joan MacIntosh (as the mother), Cordelia Richards and Jon Tenney. Each of the women in the play represents an aspect of ''A Shayna Maidel'' (pretty girl, in Yiddish), a title that echoes with lost innocence.

Since the play was done at the Hartford Stage, the author has evidently clarified the background of flashbacks and imaginary conversations that act as counterpoint to the postwar reality. Alterations in lighting and in accents cue audiences to these changes. William Barclay's open-walled set serves flexibly for the play's various locales.

''A Shayna Maidel'' leads inexorably to the posthumous reading of a letter from the mother to the American daughter, a letter that establishes the durability of the family bond. With sustained tenderness, the playwright offers a catharsis and a promise of embracing love. Sisterhood A SHAYNA MAIDEL, by Barbara Lebow; directed by Mary B. Robinson; set design, William Barclay; costume design, Mimi Maxmen; lighting design, Dennis Parichy; sound design, Aural Fixation; associate producer, Susan Urban Horsey; production stage manager, Crystal Huntington. Presented by K & D Productions, Margery

Klain and Robert G. Donnalley Jr. At the Westside Arts Theater, Downstairs, 407 West 43d Street. Rose Weiss... Melissa Gilbert Mordechai Weiss... Paul Sparer Lusia Weiss Pechenik... Gordana Rashovich Duvid Pehenik... Jon Tenney Hanna... Cordelia Richards Mama... Joan MacIntosh