Eight Nights

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Jennifer Maisel’s Eight Nights is a ghost story. Not a stately Gothic haunting featuring long-dead strangers, but a visceral visitation from the recent past. In the play’s opening scene, the visibly traumatized Younger Rebecca (Zoe Yale) stands, unspeaking, in her father Erich’s (Arye Gross) Lower East Side apartment while the ghost of her mother watches. It is the first night of Hannukah, and the play will unfold over another seven Hannukah nights spanning nearly seven decades of Rebecca’s life.

Rebecca’s trauma comes from her harrowing experiences as a survivor of Auschwitz, and her ghosts are the dead members of her family. Only her father, who came to American before the war, is alive. Their awkward, halting, painful reunion, so full of the unsaid, is beautifully performed by Gross and Yale and will engender the first of many tears in this production.

Maisel’s ambitious multi-generational drama will chart the course of American cultural and political history from WW II through the present as seen through the eyes of Rebecca’s family and friends. Along the way we will meet her loving husband, Aaron (Josh Zukerman), who lost part of his leg in the war, Benjamin (Christopher Watson), the African American soldier who saved her in the camp, and his wife Arlene (Karen Malina White). After the early scenes, Tessa Auberjonois will transition into the Older Rebecca, allowing Yale to play the younger family members.

Rebecca will live a long and successful life by compartmentalizing her pain from the war years. These are memories she doesn’t share with anyone until pressured to speak to her daughter's Sansei boyfriend, Steve (Devin Kawaoka), for an interview in a documentary film he is working on.

Director Emily Chase guides her superb cast through their various roles with a grace and compassion that shines through every performance. Auberjonois provides a solid anchor to the production, precisely charting every step in Rebecca’s arduous journey and refusing the temptation to soften the character’s prickly side.

Gross offers another generous and detailed portrayal, and the always watchable Zuckerman is the personification of patience and unquestioning devotion. Rebecca is very lucky with the men in her life. Yale nicely delineates the three generations of women she plays. White offers a welcome sassiness and a common-sense attitude, while Watson does his best to bring depth to his slightly underwritten role. Kawaoka’s late appearance heralds a new, contemporary energy in the last quarter of the play.

Maisel’s script has some minor structural issues and includes a number of fairly extraordinary coincidences. But those don’t strike you while you’re watching the production because the emotional truth of the journey is so eloquently enacted by this talented cast.

This is definitely a production to see, not only because of the quality of the acting but because it is the second world premiere play developed by Antaeus, a company conceived as an interpreter of classic drama.

Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center     November 8 – December 16, 2019    www.Antaeus.org