Barbara Lebow’s “A Shayna Maidel” lives in the relationship between two sisters, Rose (Bri Sudia) and Lusia (Emily Berman), who were separated during childhood when Rose and their father Mordechai (Charles Stransky) immigrated to Brooklyn, leaving Lusia and their mother (Carin Schapiro Silkaitis) in Poland. When we meet them, the war has ended. Lusia has survived the concentration camps and Rose is newly navigating American adulthood. When Lusia is brought to safety in America, Mordechai insists that Rose takes Lusia in, and so the sisters begin their reconnection.
While Lebow has told a rare and arresting story, the script itself is overwritten and needlessly complicated, undercutting what is already a richly complex journey. The play poses so many questions: How do we love people through their trauma? When the people around us can’t understand where we’ve been and where we are, how do we hold our trauma alone? How do we engage with a family who can’t fully know us? How much can “flesh and blood” withstand? What questions, about our past and our future, do we really want answered?
Vanessa Stalling has a keen eye for physical storytelling, along with, I imagine, the assistance of intimacy choreographer Sasha Smith. Much of the success of this piece is in the unspoken moments, which offer intimate answers to these big, broad questions. The set, designed by Colette Pollard, allows the characters to often be seen in public and private space, which deepens our understanding of how they move through the world.
Ultimately, Stalling’s production asks us how we survive, individually and familially. How do we make sense of unthinkable atrocities, when we’ve lived them and when we haven’t? How do we live with death all around us?
With the backdrop of the brutality of the Holocaust, the introduction of Mordechai’s emotionally abusive behavior and neglect, and Rose’s pursuit of female agency at work and at home, brings us into conversation about how we qualify hardship. An important discussion is raised about family and found family, and how both can be the people we live for. These themes are underrepresented and absolutely warrant exploration, which I was excited to dig into with these characters. However, they aren’t fully realized enough to contribute to the audience’s takeaway and, instead, muddy the payoff of Rose and Lusia’s profound and personal journey of unlikely sisterhood.
Both Sudia and Berman give wholehearted performances that deserve and command our attention. As Rose, for whom the unthinkable is both all the way across the world and right in her lap, Bri Sudia plays the truth of each moment beautifully. As Lusia, Berman dives deep into an exploration of identity: how we rebuild ourselves in a world we don’t recognize; the pain, confusion and joy in putting ourselves back together differently. It is lovely and deeply moving to watch the two learn to be sisters again.
While the script doesn’t fully come together, Stalling’s production is powerful and well worth seeing. This is absolutely the sort of work that we need to champion. Lebow’s heartfelt story is unique on Chicago stages and Stalling has guided her team to affecting, engaging and memorable success. (Erin Shea Brady)
TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington, (773)281-8463, timelinetheatre.com, $25-$54. Through November 4.