Sometime around 1926, a middle-aged Jew named Mordechai Weiss flees Poland for the United States, taking his four-year-old daughter Rose with him. Rose’s older sister, Lusia, has scarlet fever and can’t travel, so she stays back with Mama.
In theory, Lusia and Mama will join Rose and Mordechai later, but the years go by and for one reason and another—Mordechai is too tight to borrow the fare money, Mama doesn’t really want to travel, Lusia marries Duvid and has a baby—they don’t. Meanwhile, Rose grows into a “100 percent American” girl. And you know what happens to Mama, Lusia, Duvid, and the baby. When Lusia and Rose are finally reunited in 1946, Lusia is alone and has a death-camp number tattooed on her forearm.
A Shayna Maidel is almost necessarily compelling, given the awful antinomy at its core: this sister raised in plenty, that sister caught up in apocalypse. And playwright Barbara Lebow has ways of making the contrast especially painful. In one extraordinary scene, Mordechai and Lusia methodically compare notes—literal entries in pocket journals they keep—on the many dead and missing among their relatives and friends.
But Lebow also wants to make the pain go away. So much so that she gives her 1985 drama an unearned happy ending that depends, first, on a miraculous homecoming and, second, on a lightning-fast change of heart. Vanessa Stalling’s often satisfying staging for TimeLine Theatre doesn’t square this circle—and probably can’t. There are two kinds of Holocaust narrative, after all: the kind, like Shoah, that sticks to the monstrous facts (“If you could lick my heart, it would poison you”), and the kind, like Schindler’s List, that’s committed to redemption. A Shayna Maidel is out for redemption. v