Twice a year I have the privilege of helping my former theatre professor cast the semester’s play at the college where he teaches and directs. I always enjoy this; it reminds me what it was like to audition for a college production, it gives me insight into a director’s process (I am a novice director myself), and it’s just plain old fun. I’ve helped with the casting of comedies, dramas, and musicals and I’ve come in contact with a lot of great plays this way. But this semester, through this process, I was introduced to a truly amazing play.
Now maybe I’m getting sentimental. I feel like I’ve been gushing over a lot of plays lately (ok, ok, a lot of Sarah Ruhl plays, anyway) and the last few months have put me into a stage of exhaustion that calls for tears at the drop of a hat (or a commercial with a really cute dog in it). But I really don’t think that my heightened emotional state can downplay the serious impact of Barbara Lebow’s beautiful play, A Shayna Maidel. Look, here’s an idea; why don’t I tell you about it and maybe you’ll read it and make up your own mind. 🙂
A Shayna Maidel could easily be labeled “a Holocaust play.” It does take place shortly after World War II, it is about a Jewish family who lost loved ones in concentration camps (or suffered through them personally), and there are flashbacks and references to war and genocide. But what’s beautiful, what makes A Shayna Maidel shine is that it’s not just about the Holocaust; it’s about learning to honor your past and to live for your future. It’s about looking at two people who have nothing in common and seeing what makes them family. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about hope. And me being the sweet, sentimental sap I am…I LOVE it.
BUT…please understand that this play is NOT “sweet”or “sentimental,” not really. In fact, in many ways it is the exact opposite. The characters are harsh at times, unsentimental, and even mean. Rose is selfish and woefully lacking in understanding of what her sister Lucia has gone through. Lucia, on the other hand, is damaged to the point of numbness. And the girls’ father has built a cold, hard exterior to deal with the horrifying truth of his own, unintentional neglect…a neglect that lead his wife and daughter into a concentration camp. Yes, there is hope in this play. And humor! But there is also reality. And reality can be very dim indeed.
The term “a shayna maidel” is Yiddish for “a pretty girl.” The line in the play that references this title is brief and unassuming. Lucia admits that she was never “a pretty girl” the way her sister Rose was. But this is the moment that a question is introduced that will haunt you for the rest of the play: what is “a pretty girl?” What does it even mean? Is Rose a shayna maidel because of her face, her hair, her pretty dresses, her carefree American lifestyle? Or is Lucia a shayna maidel after all? A girl of strength and integrity, one who survived with hope still intact? How does one perceive beauty after witnessing the horrors of hell? And how do we perceive beauty — we who have not seen?
A Shayna Maidel is a beautiful play (and YES, I cried). Casting it was wonderful because in just a few months I get to see some talented young actors tackle an incredible question through a breathtaking play. If you have the chance to read it, I encourage it. If you live in PA and you’d like to tag along to the show…I’ll get back to you in March. 🙂