At the Antaeus Theatre in Glendale until the middle of December, Jennifer Maisel’s new poignant drama shows how the love of one woman and her family survive – barely – the traumatic weight of the Holocaust’s dark legacy.
By John Lavitt
Glendale, California (The Hollywood Times) 11/12/2019
Sometimes a play that intertwines real horror with a fictional story is hard to bear. The need to learn about the Holocaust and the fate of the survivors of the Nazi genocide is more of a moral imperative today than perhaps ever before. How did the survivors manage to go on after experiencing such a calculated and evil calamity?
Although it’s hard to see innocent family members struggle with the burden of trauma in their lives long after the war is over, we must not turn away. The play is set in a Brooklyn apartment over eight nights of Hanukkah that span several generations from the end of the war to almost the present day. Hence, Jennifer Maisel’s new play performed by the Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale shows how the legacy of historical trauma affects a single Jewish family over time.
As audience members, even as human beings, we have a responsibility to watch, to understand, and ultimately to empathize despite the pain such empathy brings. However, given the quality of the production, we gladly accept this charge because we know the price that might be paid if we do not. Like every other soul in this world, we must make sure it never happens again. In a sense, this story told by Jennifer Maisel is both a warning and a call to action.
Such an imperative rings true, particularly in the United States of America at the end of 2019. Hard to say and harder to take, today our country feels so embattled post-Barack Obama’s presidency. So many of us feel like we are drowning in the meanderings of a morally bankrupt President. We are at a potentially deadly crossroads.
At this deadly crossroads, we need to learn from the past, and thus we travel back in time. The story begins with Erich (Arye Gross) introducing his traumatized daughter Rebecca (Zoe Yale), to their apartment in Brooklyn. It’s the first night of Hanukkah just after the end of the Second World War. Erich traveled to America before his family to carve out a place for them in the new world. Unfortunately, his family was never allowed into the United States. As passengers on the infamous German ocean liner, the MS St. Louis, they were barred from entry into Cuba, Canada, and the United States in 1939 on the eve of the war. Unforgivably, they were sent back to Europe in what has become known as “The Voyage of the Damned.”
Exiled with her family to a devastating fate, Rebecca is a survivor of the Concentration Camps. As her father, Arye Gross plays Erich with a resonant mixture of enthusiasm and regret. He is happy to see his daughter but so distressed to see her so obviously damaged. The question from the outset is whether love can heal trauma.
As the younger Rebecca, Zoe Yale is a revelation because she says almost nothing in the opening scene. She grips tight to her suitcase to calm her shaking hands as frightened eyes dart back and forth across the small apartment. She does not believe she will ever be safe again. As an actor, Zoe Yale takes on several parts in the play across the generations of the family. Without question, her journey in the play opens with her biggest challenge since the younger Rebecca is so damaged. She has to convey so much with so little. She has to form the baseline for the rest of the play.
When asked how she managed to accomplish this role and then move on to radically different characters later in the play, Zoe Yale spoke with reverence about the support and guidance she received from the play’s director Emily Chase. Before starting to stage the scenes, Yale described how Chase asked her to delve into the following challenges: “What is each character’s internal monologue? Where are they in time and space, and how do they interact with that present moment? Emily helped me to find what was specific and nuanced for each character’s individual experience.”
Later, as we travel to each of the eight nights of Hanukkah over time and the years pass, Rebecca is played as a middle-aged woman by Tessa Auberjonois. At this point, Zoe Yale shifts from the younger Rebecca to Rebecca’s daughter and later her granddaughter. Given her talent to switch personas, such a shift works very well and does not disrupt the narrative. As the older Rebecca, Tessa Auberjonois is cut like a diamond that sparkles with an unflinching hardness. Indeed, she cannot escape the unspoken weight of the past, and she is the ossified heart and hard head at the play’s center. Although she loves and expresses loyalty, certain boundaries cannot be crossed. At the same time, those boundaries cannot be ignored because they continue to cause damage across the lines of the generations as the family evolves.
Beyond the three actors already mentioned, the rest of the cast is stellar as well. Indeed, there are so many lovely moments and powerful performances that should be noted. In particular, Josh Zuckerman as Rebecca’s husband Aaron and Karen Malina White as Rebecca’s friend Arlene stand out. Aaron is the loving center that defies the storm of trauma and stands firm in the brutal winds when Rebecca can barely hold on.
As an African-American woman, Arlene makes it clear that Rebecca is not the only person in the world to experience unjust suffering. Thus, Arlene opens up the historical narrative over time by not backing down, allowing for more to be revealed.
After the play, sitting down with playwright Jennifer Maisel, a question that needed to be asked is why this story and why now? With quiet confidence, Jennifer takes a deep breath and ponders the question. Understanding the import, she says:
“There were questions I was asking myself that could only be answered by writing this play. How do people move on from extreme trauma? How do they get up in the morning? How do they live in the world and continue to have faith in other human beings? We have to look at the traumatic cycles of history and ask what we are willing to tolerate. By telling such stories, I hope we can raise awareness about what happened in the past. This play reveals the devastating consequences. By seeing the pain of this family and experiencing it firsthand, the object is to illuminate, and thus avoid repeating those destructive cycles.”
Can art change the world? Maybe. It can, however, open our eyes to the price we pay when we fail to learn the lessons of history. It can show us what happens in the microcosm when the macrocosm goes to hell. If we are to avoid the extremity of trauma experienced by Rebecca in Eight Nights, we need to ensure that the horrors of the past are not repeated. We need to protect not only our own family, but all families in crisis.