A CurtainUp Berkshires Review: The Interview

www.curtainup.com – 7-19-07

As Faye Sholiton noted at the talkback of her play, Interview, it’s not easy to find theaters willing to risk putting on plays about a subject deemed too depressing to translate into a strong box office. And yet, with those able to testify about their Holocaust experiences dying off, there’s a greater urgency than ever to tell their stories.

Fortunately there are enough artistic enterprises willing to take a chance on a compellingly written and staged Holocaust play. The inclusion of Jonathan Lichtenstein’s powerful and often painful to watch Memory at last Fall’s Brits Off-Broadway Festival was a case in point. (my review).  Sholiton’s The Interview currently at the Chester Theater is another.

Before I go any further, I should point out that while The Interview is indeed a sad tale illustrating the way the Nazi horrors scarred not only its survivors but their children, thanks to Geraldine Librand’s vivid, nuanced portrayal sixty-nine-year-old Bracha Weissman, this ninety minute,  intermissionless play is not just deeply moving but often funny. Furthermore while Bracha declares that “after Auschwitz there are no happy endings” the play does end with a glimmer of hope that Bracha will have fewer crippling “episodes” of despair and that daughter Rivka (Nicole Orth-Pallavicini) and her family will be able to become a part of her life again. Ann Meshenberg (Elizabeth Norment), the interviewer, who’s also a survivor’s daughter, intensifies the theme of the power of forgiveness to heal even the widest chasms between daughter and mother.

Sholiton, like her characters, is from Ohio but is not herself a Holocaust survivor. A working journalist turned playwright, it was as an interviewer for the Ohio branch of Stephen Spielberg’s Shoa project that she became aware of the psychological traumas preventing people like Bracha from having healthy, normal relationships with the children born after the Nazi horrors and those children’s problems of dealing with their parents’ past.

The ever present shadows hanging over the homes of Holocaust survivors was first explored by Helen Epstein in her 1988 book Children of the Holocaust, which brought many of these secondary victims of the Nazi horrors together to share their pain, guilt and puzzlement. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus was another building block in the literature by children of Nazi era victims.

While Bracha, Rivka and Ann are characters crafted from the marginal notes of Sholiton’s interviews for the Shoa project, there are no raggedy seams of inexpert patchworking in her play. The 1995 time frame makes the characters’ ages historically accurate (Bracha just short of seventy; Rivka and Ann in their forties).

The playwright’s stand-in is an appealingly all-American mom who has volunteered to do some of these two hour video interviews for very personal reasons. This expands the mother-daughter theme a bit too schematically, but it works because the characters are written with warmth and credibility which is fully realized on stage, especially by Geraldine Librandi as the acerbic, controlling yet emotionally fragile Bracha. Though at first Librandi seems a bit young for the part, this is quickly forgotten. As you get to look beneath the tough, emotionally guarded shell of this woman you realize that she’s probably been old enough to pass for seventy for the last forty years.

The play, like the original interviews is structured as a preliminary fact-gathering session, to be followed by a video segment during which the interviewee talks about her life, and her family and what happened when the Nazis went forward with their extermination program. As Bracha sarcastically puts it “so you want my life in two hours?” This twenty-four hour time frame makes for a tightly concentrated drama that takes us back and forth between Bracha’s past and the present that integrates Ann’s own conflict as the child of survivors and that of Bracha’s own estranged daughter, Rivka.

Rivka, unlike her brother, is very much alive in California. But she’s a ghostly presence, what Bracha calls “my Greek Chorus!”— appearing intermittently to correct Bracha and fill in things she alludes to with her own memories. Rivka’s pain over her mother’s suffering and her inability to deal with her often unmotherly nagging and coldness are most touchingly expressed in a high school essay written in her mother’s voice and found by Ann tucked inside another kept by Bracha:

“My war never ends. It sticks to me, like a second skin and gnaws away at me, body and soul. Yes, I survived the war, but each battle left me wounded, and every wound chipped away a piece of me, leaving eyes that would never weep again; a heart filled with poison; and a tongue with no words to describe what I saw.”

That notebook episode also paves the way for a powerful scene between Bracha and Ann in which the older woman forces the younger one to face her demons. This emotional exorcism affects both women and had a number of people in the audience in tears.

Though written in two acts, with a natural break for anyone wishing to stage it with an intermission, it’s easy to see why director Victor Maog has opted not to interrupt the flow of the piece. His sensitive direction is well supported by Sandra Goldmark’s nicely detailed but simple set design, and the work of lighting, costume and sound designers.

If I haven’t mentioned the fourth cast member, Jeff Vatore who plays the young substitute cameraman, Chris McDonald, it’s because he doesn’t arrive on stage until the final stage. Small as his part is, it is an important finale to support the play’s somewhat hopeful conclusion. It is when Bracha declares that so many survivors kept their “unspeakable secrets” because nobody gave a damn and, if the newspaper headlines are any indication, still don’t, it’s Chris who says ” We give a damn, Mrs. Weissman.” So it seems does the audience at the Chester Theater.