Photo by Jenny Graham
Antaeus Theatre Company
In the world premiere of Jennifer Maisel’s shattering Eight Nights, the same cramped but comfortable modest apartment on the lower eastside of Manhattan is home to several generations of one family and the people whose lives they affect and who in turn are affected by theirs.
With the first scene beginning on December 15, 1949 and the last concluding on December 31, 2016, the Eight Nights explored here are set during eight separate Hanukkah gatherings as the family heroically fights to exorcise the demons of living their lives after the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust.
The wonder of Maisel’s potential future multigenerational classic is that, although it begins with the family’s own history as father Erich (Arye Gross), his daughter Rebecca (played at age 19 by Zoe Yale), and the omnipresent spectre of Anna, their dead wife and mother (Tessa Auberjonois) lost at Auschwitz, Maisel does not dwell only on the painfully haunting memories and sleepless nights suffered by Rebecca over the years.
She adds in characters invited for one reason or another to join the family for their annual Hanukkah dinner, including an African-American couple trying to outlive racism and the dark cloud of their ancestral history, a young Japanese man with roots to a family interred in U.S. camps during World War II, a same-sex couple fearful of being misunderstood, and finally a displaced Muslim refugee waiting for his own family to join him. Each scene proves pivotal in the lives of each person who attends and honors the sacred family ceremony over the years.
This is a brilliant homage to the durability of the human spirit as told from the diverse multicultural perspectives of these socially marginalized people linked together not only by their own personal sense of displacement in an often hard and selfish world, but more importantly by their individual indomitable life force.
The play opens in 1949 as Rebecca, after almost a decade of separation, has just arrived in New York following years fighting, alongside her mother and sisters, to rejoin their previously-immigrated father as refugees fleeing the Nazis on the notorious MS St. Louis. Turned back everywhere in the world where the ship attempted to dock—including America—they were ultimately sent back to Europe where she was the only one of the family to survive the concentration camp.
At the opening of the first scene, Rebecca stands centerstage holding onto her small suitcase for dear life and refusing to take off her cloth overcoat, unable to speak as Erich tries valiantly to make her feel safe. A knock on the door from a young family friend named Aaron (Josh Zuckerman) sends her cowering in a corner in terror. “It’s all right,” her father tells her as he strokes her shoulder, “those things don’t happen here.”
By the third scene, as Auberjonois assumes the role of Rebecca as a middleaged mother now married to the adoring and patient Aaron—to whom she uttered her first words in English all those years before—she assures the others gathering for the family’s Hanukkah dinner that the world is now moving in the right direction and that “We cannot ever go back.” Unfortunately, as citizens of 2019, we know how heartbreakingly ironic that sentiment has become.
It’s not difficult to speculate what inspired this award-winning and uber-talented playwright to write such a unique and remarkable play, which personally produced floods of tears for me during six of the eight holiday gatherings it depicted. Maisel admits she began Eight Nights the day after the inauguration of our Celebrity Appresident in 2016 as her response to his ugly, hate-filled speeches about walls and borders and keeping Muslims out of America.
Erich, Rebecca, and their family are the antithesis of the attitudes of our current “leaders,” in one scene opening their home and sharing their yearly celebration with the African-American soldier (Christopher Watson) who rescued Rebecca from the camps and his wife (Karen Malina White) responsible for the reunion in an effort to help end his bouts of PTSD and continuous nightmares.
After an uncomfortable bout of hurt feelings between Rebecca and her father, the couple nearly leaves but, by staying, not only become lifelong friends of the family but successful business partners, while Arlene also becomes a sympathetic mentor to Rebecca and Aaron’s daughter Amy (played by Yale), frustrated by never having anything about her mother’s past explained to her.
Throughout the generations, Rebecca refuses to tell anybody the hideous treatment she endured at the hands of the Nazis—that is until Amy falls in love with a young Sansei (Devin Kawaoka) whose own story of his grandfather’s tragic end in a Japanese internment camp leads her to a harrowing session confessing her ordeal in a taped Shoah-style interview.
The cast is uniformly phenomenal, with special kudos to the extraordinary work of Auberjonois, who not only plays the ghost of Anna but ages as Rebecca from her late 30s into a feisty and sharp-tongued senior citizen who not only acknowledges her granddaughter's secret same-sex partnership (sweetly played by Yale and White) but eventually opens her home to another terrified refugee, Gross as a Muslim father waiting hopefully for his own family to be liberated and join him.
Of course, any character touched by Arye Gross is pure gold, but as both of the tortured fathers feeling equally helpless to save his family, he is at his very best and guaranteed to make you need one of those boxes of travel-sized tissues. Of the six good cries I had during Eight Nights, Gross is personally responsible for three.
Director Emily Chase does a masterful job making this all work seamlessly, particularly conquering the many scene changes here carried out by members of the ensemble in character, with delicately choreographed movements between them featured downstage as one actor takes over the role of another.
Alex Jaeger’s evocative period costuming, Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting, and Jeff Gardner’s sound contribute considerable ambience to Edward E. Haynes Jr’s lovely set featuring delicate turn-of-the-century floral wallpaper obviously hand-painted on the silk see-through flats.
The fact that Eight Nights plays in rep on this same stage with Stephanie Alison Walker’s also amazing The Abuelas is another testament to the commitment to excellence demanded by the dedicated members of Antaeus, since Haynes’ Odets-like post-Depression apartment is set up and dressed before each performance in front of his contemporary Chicago highrise condo featured in the other production.
Luckily for them, three people are credited between the program and its inserts for prop design and management, so I’m not sure who to wag my finger at about the prop baby carried by the ghost of Anna, who sports a child’s foot dangling from swaddling wearing a period Mary Jane shoe that appears to have been constructed from black duct tape. Too close, the audience here, to get away with that.
And while I’m being persnickety, when so much effort was put into period details, couldn’t anyone find a classic box of Animal Crackers for one of the pregnant characters to be fed when there’s been so much media coverage lately about the brand new box the company has chosen to adopt that eliminates the cages in which the circus animal graphics were trapped for over a century?
As noted in dramaturg Ryan McRee’s informative essay in the program, an actual survivor of the St. Louis fiasco referenced the infamous trash-piled vessel that roamed the eastern seaboard in 1987 searching for a place to unload its unwanted cargo. “Remember the garbage barge?” Alice Olster asked. “We were the human garbage barge.” Sound familiar as today in our “Land of the Free” children are being kept in cages at our southern border, black men are executed in the streets by power-drunk monsters blatantly abusing their authority, and synagogues and mosques all over our nation are set afire?
As we desperately try to wake up from our own current greed and racially-fueled nightmare at the hands of another historically dangerous madman and the cronies who let him destroy everything for which we stand, listening to and taking heed in what such stories as Jennifer Maisel’s epic play have to share remind us that we can be equally as brave and strong and unstoppable as her richly evocative characters.
Barreling on to the year’s end and its inevitable universal holiday plea to be kind to one another and work together to find world peace on both the global and the most intimate of levels, Eight Nights should be a required event for every schoolkid and civic group in Los Angeles this “festive” season. It’ll destroy you, but it’s hugely thought-provoking and pure theatrical magic from start to finish—except those distracting Animal Crackers, of course.
THROUGH DEC. 16: Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 818.506.1983 or Antaeus.org