Memory and the Holocaust resonate in Sholiton’s play

The Cleveland Jewish News, March 15, 2002
Fran Heller, Freelance Writer

“We awakened a lot of memories,” the interviewer tells her subject, a Holocaust survivor.

“They were never asleep,” the survivor replies without skipping a beat.

Memory, silence and the baggage each claim are at the heart of Clevelander Faye Sholiton’s pointed and poignant drama, “The Interview,” at the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland’s Halle Theatre through March 24.

A story about mothers and daughters and the legacy of human suffering, “The Interview” is at once a powerful documentation of a horrific historical event and one artist’s deeply felt response to it. On both levels, it resonates. The production, under Tom Fulton’s sensitive direction and a top-notch ensemble, takes it even higher.

We first meet Holocaust survivor Bracha Weissman in the tastefully appointed living room of her Beachwood home as she nervously prepares for the interview she has agreed to do for the Western Reserve Oral History Project. A yahrzeit (memorial) candle burns in the foreground while a shadowy figure with its back to the audience plays a few bars from “The Moonlight Sonata.”

The doorbell rings. It is the interviewer, Ann Meshenberg, herself a daughter of survivors who, unbeknownst to Bracha, is about to conduct her first interview. But not before Bracha, an immaculate housekeeper, has insisted that Ann replace her snowy boots with a pair of hard-to-navigate slippers. (Bracha also chases crumbs with a Dust Buster.) It provides a moment of levity before the interview begins in earnest and Bracha starts peeling away the layers of her tortured past.

Ann hopes that through Bracha she can break the silence surrounding her own troubled history.

Conducted over a period of two days, the emotionally charged interview process becomes the means through which each woman helps the other confront her demons. Only by facing the past can one move beyond it, letting the healing and forgiveness begin.

The Holocaust as subject matter is by its very nature intense, and there are times when the dialogue has the ring of a confessional. What keeps it from becoming too heavy-handed and contrived is the strong undercurrent of humor that ripples throughout and snippets of language both pungent and lyrical.

Bracha’s recollection of eating a candy bar (including the wrapper) given to her by a GI after liberation creates a powerful image of a starving survivor. Later, in describing how she meets her future husband at a DP camp, Bracha deadpans, “Hitler was some matchmaker.” The tattoo on her arm is ironically referred to as “the only scar you see.”

The interviewer’s presence summons thoughts of her daughter Rifka for Bracha. Bracha is estranged from Rifka, who lives in Los Angeles and appears intermittently, but only in her mother’s mind. Because Rifka is seen as an actual person in the play, yet is only visible to Bracha in her imagination, that device at times both confuses and distracts from the conversation between Ann and Bracha.

In the first act, Bracha is forced to come to terms with her memories and her hostile daughter; in the second, Ann faces her buried feelings.

The regal-looking Marji Dodrill is excellent as the strong-willed Bracha, whose sardonic sense of humor and resilient exterior hide a life of pain, guilt and suffering for having survived. As Bracha visibly retreats into memory, Dodrill’s far-away look suggests an aching vulnerability beneath the toughness.

Anna Kitral is equally outstanding as the needy and apologetic Ann Meshenberg, whose outward sweet compliance masks a fury as explosive as Rifka’s. When Bracha helps Ann unburden, her elegy of anger erupts like a lava flow.

Kathryn Wolfe Sebo is a cauldron of resentment as Rifka, the overachieving daughter who wanted a mother without her history and ran as far from home as possible to escape both. An ingenuous Michael C. Roache plays the young videographer, Chris McDonald, whose youthful exuberance and empathy give Bracha courage and purpose.

Tony E. Kovacic’s bifurcated set suggests a jagged-edged photograph ripped in two and divided by a black canvas where memory plays itself out in the form of Rifka and family photographs. As Bracha and Ann sift through the family album, pictures are flashed on the backdrop, as if the audience were peering over their shoulders. It is a nice touch.

Alison Hernan’s costumes, Casey Jones’ sound, and Michael J. Simons’ lighting heighten the realism.

Sholiton drew inspiration for her play from her real-life experiences as a long-standing journalist and interviewer of Holocaust survivors for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. “The Interview,” Sholiton’s first play, was awarded first prize in three national new-play competitions and has received numerous staged readings and amateur productions throughout the U.S. This is its first Equity production.

The Beachwood playwright is currently working on a play commissioned by the JCC Halle Theatre in memory of Olympic athlete and Cleveland native David Berger.

More than a play about the Holocaust, “The Interview” is about breaking the destructive cycle of guilt and blame that is passed from one generation to the next. Throughout the production, you could hear a pin drop and, at the close, the stifling of choked whispers and sobs was audible.