Reviewed by Guy Picot
The past is always with us in haunting Hanukkah history.
Jennifer Maisel’s family drama Eight Nights, in repertoire through December 15 at Antaeus Theatre Company, has a neat device: Show one night of Hanukkah each decade from the ’40s til 2016.
The play opens with widower Erich welcoming his daughter Rebecca (Zoe Yale) to her new home in America. We learn that she was a passenger on the ill-fated MS St. Louis, a ship carrying German refugees to Cuba in May 1939 that was refused entry and returned its cargo to Europe, and the waiting concentration camps. The reunion is not entirely joyful, Erich is wracked with guilt and Rebecca is traumatized.
Over the following decades, we see Rebecca settle, marry, become a mother, a successful businesswoman and a grandmother. Yale passes the baton of the part to Tessa Auberjonois, who credibly ages and further assimilates, while still bearing the scars of her incarceration.
Characters who have died are sometimes glimpsed watching (guarding? judging?) the family they left as it deals with a changing world.
The naturalistic set by Edward E, Haynes Jr. serves the early scenes better than the later ones though contemporaneous costumes (Alex Jaeger) and props (Shen Henckel) help us to see that time marches on. I was pleasantly surprised that the decades weren’t signaled by the playing of hits of the day.
Through the decades, Rebecca conveniently encounters representatives from other marginalized and persecuted communities, here the device seems a little too formulaic, and we are left in no doubt that this is an issue play.
Under the artful yet unobtrusive direction of Emily Chase, the actors invest their characters with an abundance of charm and humanity that make us overlook the play’s occasional clunkiness. Arye Gross, as the gone-too-soon Erich, and Karen Malina White as Rebecca’s friend and business partner Arlene were, for me, the stand-outs in a strong supporting cast.
Like The Abuelas (the show it is in repertoire with), Eight Nights was developed at Antaeus through their writers’ lab. It is laudable that this commitment to new work continues to the point of full production.
Photo (above) by Jenny Graham: Zoe Yale and Karen Malina White
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