Long-separated siblings discover theyre not so different

For two sisters, separated at a young age and living apart for 18 years, life could not be more different. Rose Weiss (Sonja Starkovich) is an assimilated American with a New York City apartment, job and attitude; her sister Lusia Weiss Pechenik (Rachel Martin-Bakker), arrives from Poland dirty, dowdy, dazed and speaking mostly Yiddish.

The sisters who reunite in 1946 in New York City are virtual strangers. The journey to understand their separate and shared past make up “A Shayna Maidel” (Yiddish for “a pretty girl”), a Barbara Lebow play at City Lights Theater Company of San Jose, running through Saturday, Feb. 21.

While details of the family’s prewar and wartime experience flow throughout the show, the premise is that the family split when Rose and Papa (C.D. Feinstein) came to the United States before the Depression. Lusia, who contracted scarlet fever before the trip, stayed in Poland with Mama (Lisa Wiseman) to recover. Their tickets expired and Papa could not raise the money to send for them before the war blocked their escape. Mama died in a death camp along with Lusia’s baby girl, and Lusia’s husband, Duvid (Mark Gavartin), was arrested around 1940; his status unknown when Lusia emigrated.

The simple staging, Rose’s one-bedroom New York apartment on a distorted Star of David-shaped platform, easily allows for the flashbacks that help tell the story in the intimate, 99-seat theater.

Moments of humor, mostly in Lusia’s recollections of times with childhood friend Hanna (Christine Sliva), break up what tends to be a serious and emotionally heavy, but not heavy-handed, play. The drama deals with sentiments ranging from guilt and anger to hope, building up in the second act to tear-jerker scenes of family loss and reunion.

Rose — or Reisel, as she is known to her family — is raised by Papa and distant family members in Brooklyn. While she first appears to be a bratty young woman with no appreciation of her family’s history, her kin has sheltered her so she could grow up without the nightmares and yearnings for her mother that plagued her youth. 

When Rose hears that her older sister, Lusia, is coming to the United States to stay with her, her first thoughts are “What am I going to do with her? … It’s not fair.” Rose puts on a nervous game face, and reluctantly takes on the role of the big sister until Lusia can settle in New York.

Lucia’s appearance opens Rose’s eyes. She arrives with a Red Cross-donated suitcase and frumpy clothes, amazed at modern conveniences such as indoor heaters, dishwashers, clothes washers and indoor bathrooms. 

Although Rose and Lusia’s first days together are understandably awkward, they soon bond over similar memories of Papa’s anger, strictness and rigidity. While Lusia remembers Papa’s pride when the family was dressed up, Rose has experienced none of this — only his stern attitude. Rose relies on Lusia for memories of Mama, of whom she has only faint recollections through smells and melodies.

Rose and Lusia’s characters are engaging and evolve during the show, but Papa’s persona is disappointingly flat. There are a few instances in which Papa shows slight humanity, such as offering Rose a backhanded compliment on her cooking, instead of the usual overt criticism. While one can understand that his strictness may befit a man of his generation, the role is stiff and uninteresting.

The six-person production is believable and moving, interspersing an immigrant’s broken English with her Yiddish songs and phrases. Each woman in the show is a shayna maidel, showing her inner beauty as she relates to others.

A Shayna Maidel” plays at the City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second St., San Jose through Feb. 21, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $12-$22. Information: (408) 295-4200 or www.cltc.org.