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REVIEW: A SHAYNA MAIDEL—Laguna Playhouse

Updated: Mar 19

Barbara Lebow’s “A Shayna Maidel” is a piercing, unabashed look at life before and after the Holocaust through the eyes of two sisters: one who escaped, and one who survived.



IN ''A Shayna Maidel'' (in Yiddish, the meaning is ‘a pretty girl’) two sisters - one a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, the other brought up as an American, meet in 1946 after a separation of almost 20 years, and in the course of a heart-rending evening, they begin to achieve an intimacy that transcends the theatrical event.


Barbara Lebow's dramatization, which is currently running at Laguna Playhouse through March 31st, has a lot to say about assimilation, family obligations, survivors’ guilt, gender bias and other realities of post-World War II existence.


Set in New York City, the play opens with Rose Weiss (Eden Malyn), living as an all-American girl in her very own Manhattan apartment. She came to the United States at the age of four with her father, Mordechai (Joel Swetow), leaving behind her sick, older sister Lusia (Zarah Mahler) and mother (Samantha Klein). Lusia found contingent happiness with her friend Hannah (Marnina Schon) and by marrying young Duvid (Josh Odsess-Rubin).


This happiness was short-lived, as Duvid was arrested and Lusia and her mother were sent to concentration camps, where her mother perished, still holding on to her faith and hope of reuniting with her family. In the meantime, Rose was “playing stickball, going to the movies and eating Mello-Rolls.”


Marnina Schon, Samantha Klein and Zarah Mahler star in the Laguna Playhouse production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

David Ellenstein (Artistic Director of Laguna Playhouse) directs the play with a sure and steady hand, exploring the characters, depicting their growth and expression with remarkable assurance, especially evident in the memory scenes which are seamlessly woven into the story.


Instead of depicting the horrific front-line battles of war or its devastating aftermath, it gently tells the story of what happens when a family struggles to pick up the pieces and move forward. Director Ellenstein successfully shows how the emotional scars from abandonment and loss of family connection are wounding, but the healing salve of family love and legacy helps gets us back on our feet.


Eden Malyn and Joel Swetow star in the Laguna Playhouse production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

Presented with the sudden arrival in her apartment of an older sister whom she does not remember, Rose is at first resistant, and covers her awkwardness with ebullience. By the end of the play, however, she has come full cycle, recognizing the symbiosis between the two and the happenstance that gave her a life of freedom and that sentenced her sibling to unconscionable torments. At the same time, Lusia is resistant to any thought of assimilation, at least until she can fulfill her mission of tracking down Duvid, her beloved missing husband.


Zarah Mahler and Eden Malyn star in the Laguna Playhouse production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

The play is perfectly cast with Zarah Mahler portraying the elder sister, weary and war-torn as the homeland she just left. Ms. Mahler has the added task of playing the character from a different perspective when Lusia retreats to her comforting world of memory and reflection. That’s when her body language softens, her stance and movements become more comfortable and assured, and even her halting, stumbling words and language ease while her face blossoms into laughter and smiles during those beautifully opaque-lit scenes.


Zarah Mahler and Marnina Schon star in the Laguna Playhouse production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

Eden Malyn’s sweet innocence as Rose, staunchly deferential to Mr. Swetow’s Mordechai, her bellowing, no-nonsense Papa, yet filled with the excitement of a true American Girl, provides us with a fresh, young take on a world that, unlike her sister, has not beaten her down.


There are several “Odd Couple”-like scenes highlighting the sisters’ cultural differences as they get to know each other, but even the most comic moments are tinged with the horrors of the Holocaust. Lusia, with her broken English and old-world ways, proves a striking contrast to polished, independent Rose. Ms. Mahler’s Lusia is fragile and hesitant, yet inquisitive. Her halting English, her shyness about saying the wrong words as she learns a second language, is endearing, especially the flashbacks of her fun-loving childhood, and as a young woman in the throes of romance.


Josh Odsess-Rubin, Eden Malyn Zarah Mahler and Joel Swetow star in the Laguna Playhouse production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

Mordechai’s presence also permeates the stage, from his loud entrance to the most touching moment of healing and forgiveness at the end. Mr. Swetow does a masterful job in bringing a sense of vulnerability to this tightly wound and complex character.


The author carefully avoids both sermonizing and sentimentality (although the latter is inescapable). As the survivor, Lusia refuses to talk about her experiences in the camps. That period is burned into her eyes, and, having heard the stories and seen the pictures in journals and media specials ourselves, we can ''read'' the trepidation on the actress's face.


Marnina Schon and Zarah Mahler star in the Laguna Playhouse production of A SHAYNA MAIDEL, written by Barbara Lebow and directed by David Ellenstein and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

One harrowing sequence that provokes an outpouring of compassion from theatergoers is when Lusia watches her stern, patriarchal father reciting the names of their Polish relatives, whose whereabouts are unknown. Then, in a voice that resounds with certainty, she responds with her own list—and, for her, the whereabouts are definitely known. The litany of the murdered includes her mother and her own infant daughter.


With over a half century of stage and directorial credits, Director Ellenstein profoundly and unapologetically tackles the subject matter, glossing over nothing, displaying complete command over the complex material. Despite dialogue that frequently switches between English and Yiddish, many times confrontational, the story remains pure and intelligible.


In a cast full of accomplished performances, the standout is Zarah Mahler as Lusia. Ms. Mahler is utterly convincing as the Yiddish-speaking immigrant in a role that could easily slide into pathos, yet maintains a matter-of-factness that makes her emotional moments almost too visceral to stand (which is exactly what Mr. Ellenstein wants this audience to feel).


A perfect complement to Ms. Mahler’s Lusia, Eden Malyn as Rose glistens as a once happy-go-lucky youth struggling with immeasurable survivor’s guilt. Ms. Malyn expertly conveys the feelings many of us have experienced when trying to deal with our own struggles in the company of someone who has suffered exponentially more.


LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS, A SHAYNA MAIDEL by Barbara Lebow (“The Left Hand Singing,” “Cyparis,” “The Keepers”), Directed by David Ellenstein (“The Angel Next Door,” “Chapatti,” “Alexandros,” scenic design by Stephen Gifford; lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg; sound design by Ian Scot; costume, hair and wig design by Elisa Benzoni; props design by Kevin Williams; dialect coach is Jana Mazurkiewicz. Casting is by Michael Donovan Casting, Michael Donovan, CSA and Richie Ferris, CSA. The Production Stage Manager is Natalie Figaredo.


WITH: Samantha Klein (“If I Forget” at the Fountain Theatre – LADCC Award) as “Mama;” Zarah Mahler (Broadway: “Soul Doctor,” “Appropriate” at the Mark Taper Forum) as “Lusia Pechenik;” Eden Malyn (“Sex and Other Disturbances” at Portland Stage, “Bad Jews” at The English Theatre of Frankfurt/ETC Santa Barbara) as “Rose Weiss;” Josh Odsess-Rubin (“Photograph 51,” “Sense and Sensibility” at South Coast Repertory) as “Duvid Pechenik;” Marnina Schon (Tony Kushner’s “Brundibar” at Berkeley Rep; “Once” at South Coast Repertory) as “Hanna;” and Joel Swetow (“Henry IV” at Antaeus Theatre; “Les Blancs” at Rogue Machine) as “Mordechai Weiss.”


Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 2:00pm & 7:30pm; Sundays at 1:00pm & 5:30pm.  There will be added performances on Thursday, March 21 at 2:00pm and Tuesday, March 26 at 7:30pm. There will be no performance on Sunday, March 31 at 5:30pm. Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. For Tickets: https://lagunaplayhouse.com/

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report



Photo Credits: Jason Niedle/Tethos









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