A girl I had a yen for in high school was a year older than me. Through persistence, I got her to go with me up to San Francisco to see Lawrence of Arabia. I was greeted at the door by her dad, a short, gentle guy with a kindly demeanor. When he reached out his hand for a shake, I saw the numbers on the inside of his forearm. I knew instantly what they meant. My date’s parents had survived Auschwitz.
In school we were taught the Nazi Holocaust. We were shown Triumph of the Will, which was soon followed by the French documentary Night and Fog, the most horrifying thing I have ever seen to this day. The film clips and photographs are seared into my memories.
Jennifer Maisel’s Eight Nights is a brilliant, complex script that invokes those times with the story of a teen-aged survivor, Rebecca Blum, who lost her entire family, save for her father, Erich (excellent Arye Gross), who emigrated ahead of the rest to prepare a place for them in New York City. It is Chanukah, 1949, and the young Rebecca (stunning Zoe Yale who goes on to play her own daughter and grand daughter) stands mute in her father’s Manhattan apartment, just arrived, still in her traveling attire, and clutching her single suitcase. It is a heart wrenching scene as Erich, carrying an emotional load of unfair guilt, tries to spark a connection with his daughter. There is another person in the scene, a woman seen in a corner clutching a small child wrapped up in blankets. It is Erich’s wife, Anna, who died, we learn later, in Dachau. At first she is a benign ghostly presence played by Tessa Auberjonois. When this powerful actor moves from a silent presence to take center stage as the mature Rebecca, she shakes the stage with a bravura performance that tops with a searing climax and a sigh of dénouement.
As the play jumps in time through seven more Chanukahs up to the present day, more characters appear. Aaron (Josh Zuckerman in a passionate performance), as a limping, war-damaged veteran, falls for Rebecca and maintains that character throughout, aging as the years pass by, first falling in love and marrying the young Rebecca, and then with Tessa Auberjonois, who takes on the role of the older Rebecca. Both female actors invest their characters with the passion of love and guilt. Rebecca is a spitfire of bottled up emotion to the end, fierce, loving and haunted.
On a later Chanukah, Arlene (warm, appealing Karen Malina White) and Benjamin (a haunted Christopher Watson), an African American couple, friends of Aaron and Erich, make an appearance. Benjamin is also a wounded army veteran, but his wounds are emotional, stemming from what he saw when the American army liberated Dachau and his treatment as a black man both in the army and at home. His wife, Arelene becomes Rebeccas best friend and her eventual business partner. The last major character to appear is Steve (eminently likable Devin Kawaoka), the Japanese-American boyfriend of Amy, Rebecca’s daughter. His family history is shadowed by the internment his grandparents suffered during the war.
Eight Nights is awesomely complex and superbly directed by Emily Chase. The emotional impact of the show is enormous and gripped this theatre goer from beginning to end. The power of the players is extraordinary. When I left the theatre with my One-and-Only, I said, “This play is perfect.” I meant it then and I mean it now.
As is de rigueur at Antaeus Theatre, the production is superbly staged, fueled by the talents of scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr., lighting designer Karyn D. Lawrence, costume designer Alex Jaeger, sound designer Jeff Gardner, properties designer David Saewert, dialect coach Lauren Lovett, new play dramaturg Paula Cizmar and dramaturg Ryan McRee. The production stage manager is Heather Gonzalez.
The Antaeus Theatre Company production of Jennifer Maisel’s Eight Nights continues through December 16 at Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale.