North Coast Repertory Theatre took on La Jolla psychologist Edith Eger as a consultant in preparation for A Shayna Maidel, the group's current production. That speaks to the company's willingness to extend itself in its search for this play's truths. And when you're dealing with the Holocaust as your back-story, those truths are tough to illustrate amid the unimaginable horrors the 20th century's watershed event evokes to this day.
But playwright Barbara Lebow and director David Ellenstein have touched the play's core through the most direct means possible—detachment. Not a whisper of sermonizing shades this portrait of a family's wartime disintegration and the reunion of its remaining members. Not a trace of bloodlust colors the group's crisis of faith amid one of the most heinous events in the history of civilization. Whatever hand Eger had in coaching the cast—and I suspect it was a big one—has marked a wholly moving anecdote on human hope, in the guise of as disciplined and comprehensive piece of theater as you'll find.
“A shayna maidel” translates from the Yiddish as “a beautiful girl”—and in this case, “beautiful” translates as an exhaustive loss of innocence. Lusia Weiss Pechinik (Jessica John) is the shayna maidel in question, arriving in 1946 New York following her father Mordechai's (Ralph Elias) successful search for her. Lusia, a Polish Jew and a living archive of concentration-camp atrocities, now stands frozen in culture shock inside the tony West Side apartment of Rose Weiss (Christy Hall), the Poland-born, U.S.-raised sister Lusia hasn't seen for 20 years. She's also the extension of Rose's naivete and Mordechai's hatred of the Nazi machine that nearly obliterated his kin.
Lusia's search for her missing husband Duvid (Christopher M. Williams); her resistance to American assimilation until she finds him; her stoicism amid the murders of her mother and infant daughter: These moments are absolutely pivotal to the action, and other directors might exploit them for their emotional wallop—but Ellenstein knows enough to let them speak for themselves. There's an overwhelming subtlety to those moments and to this play; the show illustrates its antiwar stance through its quiet championing of the Weisses' cause. No need to portray rage and indignation in response to the enemy's crimes. The rejuvenation of the family is commentary enough.
Meanwhile, this production does tend toward a slow start. The first two scenes involve nothing more than Mordechai's introduction and Lusia's earlier-than-expected arrival in New York, without a freckle of back-story. Compare them with the later wonderful flashbacks depicting Lusia's search for Duvid and her relationship with her late mother (D. Candis Paule)—those first installments read almost like a weak prelude. As well, Hall's Rose is ever so slightly oversolicitous toward Mordechai. Mord was just this side of cruel in having raised the girls with an iron hand; Rose's desire to be free of his influence would read more clearly if she could bring herself to voice her resentment toward dad, even a little.
Psychotherapist Al Germani, founding artistic director of San Diego's great Lynx Performance Theatre, routinely uses his professional skills to coax his people into their most affecting moments. He's a consummate expert at exploiting his actors' darker personal experiences and slapping them onto the characters. That's likely what Eger was hired to do, and her work shows in this cast's thorough comprehension of the play and the global travesty that inspired it. In my more than four years' coverage of North Coast plays, I have to say this is the best one I've seen. This review is based on the evening production of March 7. A Shayna Maidel runs through March 23 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $32-$35. 858-481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org.