The Tampa Players alarmed many theatergoers in January when it suspended its announced schedule of performances because of financial problems. Since then it has regrouped and has staged a comeback worth waiting for _ the poignant drama, A Shayna Maidel. This is, aptly, a heart-wrenching play about the unfailing power and gritty resilience of family. No signs of lean times have beset this production, which continues in an extended run through June 9. Though Tampa Players, a professional company, has been forced to operate with a skeleton staff (ticket orders must be trusted to an answering machine), the company has put together a first-rate production with solid acting and an enticing set. Performances are in the small "black box" theater at the Hillsborough Community College campus in Ybor City, chosen for its relatively low rent compared to the Players' previous home at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
A Shayna Maidel, written by Barbara Lebow, ran off-Broadway for two years. The title means "a pretty girl" in Yiddish. It is the story of two Jewish sisters, separated in childhood in Poland, who are reunited 18 years later, in New York in 1946. Fate has made them strangers. Rose, who came to America with her father in the late 1920s, lives happily on Manhattan's West Side. Lusia is a post-war immigrant, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Gradually, the sisters overcome their differences and establish a long-lost family bond.
The action takes place entirely in Rose's cozy apartment, lovingly designed by director/set designer Bill Lelbach with book-lined shelves, varnished wood and stuffed furniture. Because the theater seats only 120, the audience practically sits in Rose's parlor. As a result, we intimately witness how Lusia's arrival disturbs the dust that has settled on her sister's world.
Lusia (played passionately though slightly monotonously by Monica Bishop) arrives, clutching a ragged doll, like an orphan at the mercy of a new parent. While Rose strains to help her face the future, Lusia clings desperately to the past. Much of the story line unfolds through her frequent flashbacks, memories of loved ones that both haunt her and provide her with a place to seek refuge from unfamiliar surroundings.
Lusia's plight _ namely, her adaptation to America after being in a concentration camp _ offers perspective on freedom and privilege. In halting English, Lusia must learn to express thoughts outside her experience _ words like "allowed" and "price tag." She wanders around the apartment, wide-eyed at the electric stove, the plush carpet, indoor heat and garbage service, but even surrounded by these luxuries, she can't overcome the horror of her past. When offered a coat, she refuses, blurting, "I want to be cold, like the dead ones."
But director Lelbach deftly establishes that the story is Rose's, not Lusia's. Rose undergoes the largest transformation as she probes into the past, reawakening her memory of her mother and discovering her father's tragic mistake, which decided the family's fate.
As Rose, Leslie Burmeister injects her performance with a good dose of warmth and humor. At first, she is at a loss with her sister. Gradually, Rose learns how to approach Lusia on her own terms. Burmeister is deft at conveying a sense of bemusement at her character's situation and the strange idiosyncracies of her sister.
While Burmeister appears mechanical in deeply emotional scenes, the conversations between Lusia and Rose seem flat. They somehow remain strangers even as they slowly open up to each other. After 18 years of separation, you would expect to see more emotion, more tension between the sisters as they resurrect the past.
Bishop's Lusia seemed to miss opportunities to be tender with her sister. Although Bishop was riveting at portraying the pain of Lusia's past, the character wasn't convincing as she began to open her heart to her sister and father.
All that wasn't helped by the audience last Friday night _ a rowdy group of about 100 junior high school students from Miami. They hooted and laughed during many of the play's most fragile moments. Such antics were enough to drive a pair of season ticket holders to leave at intermission. No doubt they distracted the cast as well.
The two actresses are supported by an able cast. Richard Casey, as the father, re-creates the mannerisms of an old Eastern European immigrant expertly. Anita Jesski offers a touching performance as the selfless mother, who appears in Lusia's flashbacks. Peggy O'Neal, as Lusia's childhood playmate Hanna, adds a stroke of radiance to the somber production. Terry Alexander plays Lusia's husband Duvid with overflowing energy.
Although the small theater is an appropriate venue for A Shayna Maidel, at times the characters turn their backs to at least a third of the audience. This makes it hard to read their faces, identify their body language and hear their voices.
Tampa Players plans one more production this summer, Kuru, a comedy about a tribe of cannibals and the doctor who cured the disease that afflicted them, June 19-30.
For ticket information, call 229-1505 in Tampa.
A Shayna Maidel
Cast: Leslie Burmeister, Richard Casey, Monica Bishop, Terry Alexander, Peggy O'Neal, Anita Jesski
Director: Bill Lelbach
Playwright: Barbara Lebow
Sets: Bill Lelbach
Lighting: G.B Stephens
Costumes: Joanne L. Johnson
Presented through June 9 by the Tampa Players. For ticket information, call 229-1505 in Tampa.