Laguna Playhouse’s stunning new show addresses a family’s loss, love and the power of moving forward in life

By THERESA KEEGAN

The latest show at Laguna Playhouse, A Shayna Maidel (“a pretty girl,” in Yiddish), carries a powerful message: Even in the depths of despair, there’s hope.

“It’s about finding goodness through bad things, and to look ahead,” said artistic director David Ellenstein, whose passion for the play is evident in his enthusiasm. “It points out how good we can be as people.”

While the play’s theme is far from uplifting – it addresses the impact of the Holocaust on one family that was separated across two countries – the love that develops and endures with the characters offers a universal message of hope.

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Photos courtesy Laguna Playhouse

Marnina Schon started her theater experience at Berkley Rep in Tony Kushner’s “Brundibar.” She will portray Hanna, who was killed in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

“It shows their resiliency, their heart,” said Ellenstein. “It takes you all the way down and all the way up.”

The story centers around two sisters: Rose, played by Eden Malyn and Lusia, played by Zarah Mahler. It’s 1946 and Rose, who left Poland with her father before the war broke out, is an independent spirit, in her own apartment in New York. Lusia, who endured the war, and the deaths of her mother, and best friend Hanna in the camps, has also lost her baby. She is searching for her husband, Duvid, played by Josh Odsess-Rubin, convinced he is alive because his name has not shown up on any war lists. She arrives in New York from Poland and moves into her sister’s apartment.

The two sisters have not been together in years and their resentment toward each other is evident and sincere. Rose doesn’t want to share her life – or apartment – with this new arrival and Lusia resents the fact her sister was able to come to America with her father.

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L.A.-based actor Josh Odsess-Rubin has appeared on stages and in television as well as “Shakespeare Orange County.” He is portraying Duvid, Lusia’s husband.

(Illness kept Lusia and her mother in Poland, and once the war started it was impossible to leave the country.) The girls’ father, played by Joel Swetow, also has deep emotional experiences throughout the play, confronting agonizing losses, guilt and also, love.

“When there’s so much divisiveness, it shows how important family and love is – and also being able to get through things,” said Ellenstein.

This is the third time he’s producing this play, and he readily acknowledges the profound effect it’s had on him.

The initial production in 1989 at the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego plunged him into the world of directing, rather than acting. He hasn’t looked back.

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This will be the third time David Ellenstein will be directing the play “A Shayna Maidel.” It has had a profound positive effect on him professionally and personally.

“As a director it’s all about focusing – making sure the audience is paying attention to what you want them to pay attention to,” he explained. That allows the audience to experience and feel the play most powerfully. He saw the effect of his work when the audience departed, and people were uplifted by the entire experience.

“Actors need to be mono-focused, but as a director you’re looking beyond to the experience the audience will have,” he said. “The director is empowering the actors and designers to do their best work.”

The 2007 production he directed at North Coast Rep left Ellenstein with deep thoughts about what it means to be human.

“It’s about family, but family is a general term,” he said. “What does family mean – it’s a community of friends who support you.”

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Actor Joel Swetow has appeared in select New York City and regional theaters as well as select theaters in Los Angeles

The play’s six actors have not worked together before, but as they spent the past three weeks rehearsing and preparing and living in Laguna Beach, they’ve become a unit, said Ellenstein. They’ve shared meals and time together and that camaraderie makes the family scenes on stage seem more authentic.

“All six of these actors are new to this play and I’ve never worked with them before,” said Ellenstein. “We put the family together afresh for this production.” Other actors include Samantha Klein as the mother and Marnina Schon as Hanna.

“It’s great to always work with new, talented amazing artists,” he said.

A Shayna Maidel was slated to be performed at the Laguna Playhouse in 2020, but the pandemic caused plans to shift.

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Samantha Klein has received multiple recognitions for her theater work in the Los Angeles area and has numerous television credits

“It makes sense to do it now,” said Ellenstein. “I still think this is a touching story of an individual who has to overcome major trauma and figure out how to see their way through it.”

It also demonstrates how people with differing views and perspectives can still recognize their shared humanity and celebrate the love they share, despite the horrors they’ve lived through, he explained.

“It’s about finding goodness through bad things – and still looking ahead to the good in life.”

A Shayna Maidel will be performed at the Laguna Playhouse from March 13-31. For more information and tickets, click here.


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