Review: ThreePenny Theatre’s ‘A Shayna Maidel’ a timely, powerful, must-see drama

Merry Magee (left) and Sam Torres in 'A Shayna Maidel.' Photo: ThreePenny Theatre Company

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, May 23, 2023 (Gephardt Daily) — One thing I really do love about the Salt Lake theater scene is its passion. It’s wonderful to see excellent shows by established theater companies, and it’s also really great to discover a new company you are excited about. I’m a little late to the game, but I just caught my first show from ThreePenny Theatre Company, which was founded in 2019.

“A Shayna Maidel” (Yiddish for “A Pretty Girl”) is a powerful, poignant drama about two sisters trying to reconnect after years of separation during World War II. The play by Barbara Lebow opened at the Alliance Theater in Trolley Square May 19 and has three more shows this week; Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2:30 p.m. It’s worth noting that it is a pay-what-you-can play, and all high school and junior high students can attend for free.

In New York City in 1946, a father and daughter have adapted to life as new Americans after escaping Poland before the Second World War. The daughter, Rose White, has even changed her name, from Rayzel Weiss. When they escaped, they were forced to leave behind Rose’s sister Lusia, who had scarlet fever, and the girls’ mother. When the war breaks out, mother and daughter cannot leave the country. Lusia initially does not mind being left behind because she can remain with her best friend Hanna and because she has fallen in love with a man named Duvid. When Rose and Lusia are eventually reunited, Rose tries to engage with an older sister who, having survived the horrors of Auschwitz, now seems a stranger. And Lusia, haunted by vivid memories of her past, struggles to connect with a sister and father she barely knows. The play explores the intricacies of family, faith, and forgiveness.

Written in 1984 and first produced in 1985, “A Shayna Maidel” has been widely produced by America’s leading regional theaters and became a long-running success Off-Broadway from 1987 to 1989. There is also a film adaptation of the play.

Merry Magee left and Sam Torres in A Shayna Maidel Photo ThreePenny Theatre Company

I will say that when I saw that the play was about, in part, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, I almost had second thoughts about attending as, especially as a British person, it’s a really hard subject to watch or think about. But honestly, with our current political climate, everyone should see this play and learn from it. Also, the author really focuses on the relationship between the characters, rather than going into graphic details about the horrors Lusia had to endure, which means we fill in the blanks in our own heads. Lusia does not want to talk about what she went through, so we can only imagine.

The performances, across the board, were absolutely lovely. Merry Magee, who plays Lusia, and Sam Torres, who plays Rose, are both names to watch in the Salt Lake theater scene. Both seem less to act and more to just be. Magee turns in a beautifully understated performance, and captures so many emotions with great subtlety and depth. We see the pain burning bright in her character’s eyes and the memories and nightmares that are etched onto her face.

And Torres is just a wonder. I’ve seen her in three pieces recently; Wasatch Theatre Company’s “Melancholy Play,” a reading of Morag Shepherd’s “The Big Quiet” for Pygmalion Theatre Company and now this show, and with apparently no effort at all, she transformed utterly for each. Of course, that is what actors do, but to see such complete metamorphosis into vastly different characters is quite a feat. As Rose, she has an ebullience and a love for all things pretty that she tempers when her sister comes to stay, out of sensitivity for what Lusia has been through. It’s as if the sisters are searching for similarities to each other, and are not sure how to handle the fact that they seem, initially, so different.

The supporting cast is solid too. Andrew Maizner plays the girls’ father as overbearing, stoic and rigid, but with enough tenderness that we feel sympathetic towards him, while Mira Kocherhans makes an impact in a small role as Hanna, Lusia’s friend from Poland. Nick Mathews as Duvid and Melody Baugh as the mother also do nice, subtle work.

Merry Magee left and Mira Kocherhans in A Shayna Maidel Photo ThreePenny Theatre Company

The show is directed by Jonah Kirkhart, with a light touch that steers it firmly away from melodrama. Though the play is set in Rose’s apartment, Kirkhart also has the rather tricky task of blocking the action so it’s clear what is happening in the present and what are flashbacks of Lusia’s and things she hears that are actually recollections. Kirkhart does this extremely well, so at times Lusia is conversing with someone that is physically onstage but is a memory, while another character from the present such as her sister or father is watching and wondering who she’s talking to.

The production values are simple but successful. Rather impressively, Kirkhart is also credited as doing the lighting and set design. The play takes place in the rather pleasant apartment belonging to Rose, which, as Lusia points out, has creature comforts including heating, hot water, a radio and plentiful food. The set is basic but absolutely effective, with a bed, sofa, table, vintage radio and kitchen table. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. The lighting too, is not too complex, and nicely helps to differentiate between what is occurring in the past and what’s in the present. The sound design is by Cody O’Hare, who is also the company’s education director.

There is no costume or props designer listed but there is a thanks for assistance to Syd Perronet. I really enjoyed both the costumes and the hairstyles, which nicely suggested the 1940s time period.

If you have time this week, I would highly recommend “A Shayna Maidel.” It’s an important story, told in a gentle and extremely moving way, and there is hope at the conclusion of the piece. Tickets are available here.

Coming up next in ThreePenny’s season is Jacobean revenge tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi,” by John Webster in August, followed by “Night, Mother” by Marsha Norman in October, a play about a mother and daughter, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.

The company has found a good niche, producing strong scripts that are not often done here in Utah, with excellent, brave actors. Part of their mission statement also is engage impoverished, lower income, and homeless communities in classes and rehearsal in the theatrical arts. I will certainly be attending the rest of the current season and am excited for what’s coming up next for the company.


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