(Note: This picture shows the old cast of Stage Door's "A Shayna Maidel")
This week, I finally made it out to the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs to see “A Shayna Maidel,” or, as it should probably be known now, “A Shayna Maidel 2.0.” The show opened on Sept. 5 but has been such a hit that it has been extended twice, currently set to run through Oct. 28. Its success has been so unprecedented that Stage Door had to migrate the entire set first over to its main stage, and then back to its secondary theater, to accommodate the scheduled opening of another show (Neil Simon’s “Rumors”). The producers even recast portions of it, resulting in what must be a fundamentally different show than audiences were treated to in September.
I wish I had made it to Stage Door sooner because, try as it might, the current cast is carried mostly by second-tier talent who have mechanically memorized their lines but convey little of the feeling behind them.
This is a shame, because “A Shayna Maidel” is a sensitive play that relies on deep wellsprings of emotion – a shattering historical drama exploring such dichotomies as tradition and progress, family and individuality, fear and liberation, centering on the relationship between two Jewish sisters torn apart by the Holocaust. In 1946, Luisa (Eva Amesse), a survivor of the death camps, has just emigrated to New York to reconnect with her younger sister Rayzel (Emilie Paap), a modern, mainstream, secular American who escaped Poland before the German occupation; and their father Mordechai (Kevin Reilley), who had also fled to America before the invasion.
The reunion is expectedly awkward, with the sisters talking past one another, if Luisa speaks at all. Armed with a limited understanding of English and suddenly flooded with American abundance after subsisting for years on bread crumbs, Luisa remains the Other, even in her sister’s apartment. But the hope that she’ll eventually reunite with her estranged paramour Duvid (Stephen Elliott Kaiser) keeps her going.
There are flashbacks to Luisa’s youth in her small Polish village, and finally some hazy, unclear revelations about the family’s schism at the time of the Nazi invasion. And that’s pretty much it; this is a play driven by talk, not action, and the new cast members struggle to bring vitality and truth to playwright Barbara Lebow’s filial exorcisms. Amesse’s Luisa, who juggles Yiddish along with accented and unaccented English, has the most difficult role, and is the best of the three replacements, but she remains something of a meek, one-note skeleton all the way through, her arms perpetually glued to her sides, stiff as a board.
Paap is a real disappoint, the sense of “acting” ever-present in a performance that strains every time emotions are required. She never grows comfortable in her character’s skin. Reilley and Miki Edelman, as the girl’s mother, bring the most maturity and naturalism to their parts, which is not surprising – they’ve been playing them for about two months now – but they’re probably better actors than their younger colleagues, as well.
The Stage Door’s set design for “A Shayna Maidel” is modest and appropriately cramped, a living room and bedroom bisected in the center by a historical skyline that is used for flashbacks and fantasy sequences. It could have been stronger and more distinctive, but it’s of a better quality than some other Stage Door sets.
At any rate, there’s no excuse for director Hugh Murphy’s handling of the space in one of the final, climactic scenes, in which a character’s harmful, self-inflicted breakdown is presented entirely with her back to the audience, muddling what should have been Paap’s most powerful moment. That I’m not sure she would have nailed the scene with conviction anyway is beside the point; this version of “A Shayna Maidel” doesn’t work, and the direction sinks it as much as the acting.
The Broward Stage Door Theatre is at 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate. Tickets are $38. For information, call 954/344-7765 or visit stagedoortheatre.com