Pain of the Survivors: in The Interview, words burn and heal

Published March 13 – 19, 2002  in The Cleveland Free Times
Marie Andrusewicz

Historian Ann Meshenberg doesn’t know what she’ll find when she enters the Beachwood home of Holocaust survivor Bracha Weissman. She nervously douses her cigarette, takes a hit of Binaca, and crosses into the forced tranquility – Beethoven on the stereo – and rigid order of the steely, rugula-wielding warrior’s lair. Ann’s purpose is to record video testimony of what Bracha experienced and witnessed as a persecuted Jew in Hitler’s Germany. What she achieves, unsurprisingly but not predictably, is an opportunity to forever close the door on her own struggle as a child of survivors, a horrible pain she holds that has withered, but never completely died.

The first act of local playwright Faye Sholiton’s The Interview expends about a half an hour on a straightforward Q and A between these two characters, which effectively serves its expository purpose and establishes the dynamic between the women, but possibly goes on for about 10 minutes too long. However, the device/introduction of Bracha’s daughter Rifka (who can be heard by Bracha but not Ann), successfully alters the play’s structure before it becomes too static. A few changes in the tempo or texture of act one would help it serve as an even more successful prelude to a nearly perfect, joyously heart-rending second act.

There are outstanding performances from two Equity performers – Marji Dodrill as Bracha and Annie Kitral as Ann. Both provide many brilliant moments. The first time Dodrill as Bracha speaks specifically of her time in Auschwitz, the expression in her eyes is so powerfully evocative of the horrors there, that the images one takes away from the moment are almost as vivid as the most graphic Holocaust photographs. Also turning in a fine performance is Kathryn Wolfe Sebo in the difficult role of Rifka – it’s easy for audiences to grow quickly impatient with this type of character, the bitter victim of parental abuse who one thinks perhaps should have been able to move on already. Sebos’ griping never becomes grating.

Towards the end of the second act, the focus shifts to Kitral’s character; Ann is able to finally root out and release the hatred she held on to for so many years, hatred she felt toward Hitler, toward her family, toward God. When this cathartic moment first begins, with Bracha now stepping into the role of facilitator, it feels like it might be a contrivance, something we might see on Oprah; but somehow, before the scene is over, Sholiton has masterfully molded the exchange into one of the play’s most beautiful.

Because for many, images of the Holocaust are so deeply and horrifically ingrained, Sholiton’s decision to focus primarily on the echoing effects faced by children of survivors seems compassionate in its understatement, with an added advantage of offering resonance for younger audiences. Rifka leaves a note explaining her need to separate herself from her mother’s frozen rage, and even as she lashes out at her formidable parent, she expresses faith that a healing can follow: “Hitler’s claimed enough lives, he’s not going to get mine … call me when you understand.”

Sholiton makes an interesting point in the program notes for The Interview, a point perhaps directed at people who might shy away from attending plays with subject matter too far outside of their personal histories or spiritual/ethnic identities. Viewers who saw earlier, workshopped productions of Sholiton’s play have found meaning beyond the literal and obvious theme of transcending nightmares of the Holocaust in order to let in enough light to nurture future generations. A Dayton audience member thought the play was actually about living with alcoholics; someone seeing the play in Boston thought it was about surviving child abuse. In her notes, Sholiton goes on to make the point that her play is really about “all those homes where people can’t talk about something; because the result is, they can’t really talk about anything.”