The storyline of Barbara Lebow’s drama A Shayna Maidel – two Polish sisters, separated by the Holocaust, are re-united in 1946 New York – appealed to Innovocative Theater founder and producing artistic director Staci Sabarsky.
The Tampa group, which will celebrate its third anniversary in March, was created to put up plays that are “innovative, evocative and thought-provoking,” plays that probe just a little deeper beneath the surface of the human condition.
Innovocative shows are entertaining – hey, that’s always a goal with live theater – but what they are not, insists Sabarsky, are pure escapism.
“There are many, many companies in the area that do that, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “I enjoy that as much as the next person.
“But theater can be more than that. Theater can be used to spark a conversation, to address topics that are either current or that people haven’t thought about in a certain way. It can be used to maybe open up someone’s mind to another point of view.”
So it is with A Shayna Maidel (it’s a Yiddish expression, translating as “a pretty girl”). One sister was able to flee the Nazis with her father; the other, and the girls’ mother, spent years in a concentration camp.
The Chicago Tribune saw what Staci Sabarsky saw: “You might be watching a story about a trio of Jewish immigrants,” the reviewer wrote, “with all the attendant themes of pride and assimilation, honoring the past and moving forward to the present. But you cannot help but think of the common problems faced by all immigrants, all refugees. You can’t avoid your head filling with the suffocating inequality of disruption.”
The Americanized Rose (Kristina Kourkoulos) lives with her strong, stoic but guilt-ridden father, Mordechai (Larry Corwin), when Lusia (Kayla Witoshynsky) arrives, alone.
“One sister survived the Holocaust, and that has forever changed who she is,” Sabarsky points out. “And the other sister, when she moved to America, she was so young. She doesn’t hardly remember Poland at all. She was raised as an American girl. Her sister had a very, very different life experience, obviously.”
For all its historical poignancy and DNA link to real-life horror and tragedy, A Shayna Maidel is “a story about family,” Sabarsky says. “It’s a family that been separated – in this case, because of immigration and the war – and in reality it’s about them coming back together and finding each other. And re-connecting and starting over.
“I felt like it was something that a lot of people could relate to. Families can become estranged for many reasons, and then years later start getting to know each other again. It spoke to me about the resilience of family, and love, and about how with that you can heal and get through anything together.”
The show is presented in the Stageworks Theatre space, in the Channelside District, this weekend and next.
A dream deferred
From the start, Sabarsky believed she understood Mordechai best of all. He reminded her of her own father, who’d grown up in Greece during World War II and immigrated to the United States – to Dunedin – where he started a business and raised a family.
“This character really has a strong sense of his tradition and background, yet also understands the importance of becoming an American and becoming respected here,” she explains. “Likewise with my father – he insisted we spoke ‘American’ in our house. I had a lot of Greek friends whose families only spoke Greek in the house.
“Men of a certain age, they like to keep their emotions in check, because that’s a sign of weakness. They have to be the head of the house, and the strong male figure … there’s just certain things that, regardless of what ethnicity, are kind of all the same. That generation of men, it was a very different time, and very often, women stayed home.”
Her parents, in fact, wanted Staci to take over the family business once she completed her education. At Dunedin High School, she’d excelled in the theater program, and had dreams of becoming a professional actor and singer.
“So they were like ‘Well, we’ll pay for you to go to school if you study business, but not for this acting stuff.’ That wasn’t a real job to them.”
So that’s what Staci Sabarsky did.
After a decade working for the Subway Corporation – based in North Carolina, she worked in franchise development – Sabarsky began to feel a void. “I realized I wasn’t truly happy, or fulfilling what I felt like my life’s purpose really was,” she says. “I told my husband I wasn’t happy, and he said ‘What would you want to do, if you could do anything?’
“I thought about it for a couple of days, soul-searching, and then I said ‘You know, I think I’d like to go back to school and finish my degree.’ I realized, after many years, that something was missing in my life. And it was theater.”
With a freshly-minted BA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill, she began making up for lost time, acting and directing in her community, and then teaching the art in both public and private schools.
Her husband’s job brought them to the bay area, and to the creation of Innovocative Theatre.
“That’s kind of how it happened,” Sabarsky explains. “One thing led to another. I always thought theater was what I was supposed to be doing.”
A Shayna Maidel is onstage Friday-Sunday through Jan. 19. There will be talkbacks with the cast and director following the Sunday matinees.
Tickets and information here.