A Driving Force Behind the Director : Deborah LaVine's 'obsession' with the Holocaust is what attracted her to the Obie-winning drama, 'A Shayna Maidel'

On her honeymoon, Deborah LaVine made a point to stop at Auschwitz.

"I don't have any family who are survivors, but I have such an obsession with the Holocaust," said the director. "I guess because it's such a clear evil--and my people's history. I've always identified with the feeling of loss, the 6 million. And it was such a dramatic time: the world being catapulted into this turmoil, otherwise civilized people sent to the edge of prejudice. It's just so . . . theatrical. "

So it's no wonder that LaVine jumped at the chance to direct the West Coast premiere of Barbara Lebow's Obie-winning drama, "A Shayna Maidel" (which opened this weekend at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood), the story of a Polish family's reunion in the shadow of World War II.

"It takes place in 1946," she said. "The father and youngest daughter have been in New York for the last 16 years. Originally, the mother stayed behind because the older daughter had scarlet fever. Then war broke out; the borders were locked. At one time, the father had the option to bring them over; someone offered him money for it, but he refused out of pride. The mother died in the camps; the daughter came through them and is a survivor. Now the father's bringing her to New York."

"It touched me, as a mother, daughter and sister," said co-producer Sheryl Levine Guterman, who saw the production last year in New York. Guterman, whose Manna Company presented the story of Israeli martyr "Hannah Senesh" locally at the Zephyr in '87, feels the material "plays on many different levels," both Holocaust-specific and universal. Within that painful framework, both she and LaVine emphasize that the piece is not a downer.

"It's very cathartic, very hopeful," said LaVine, 38.

"Yes, there are difficult moments. But it's also very positive, very uplifting. I've done plays that were about the Holocaust," LaVine said. In 1978 at North Hollywood's Theatre Exchange she staged Bertolt Brecht's "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui," based on Hitler's ascent to power. "This is not about that. It's about recovery and family, about survival and the will to live: two sisters who find each other and grow together, and a father who learns to open up to his daughters."

Mind you, it's not just any play that would get LaVine, the mother of a 7-month-old baby, into the director's seat these days. "I was not going to work in June," she said. "My husband's taking the bar in July, and I'd been working almost nonstop since the baby--and before the baby. But when this play became available, I couldn't not do it. It wasn't even a choice. I know that sounds gushy, but it's true. That's how much this play means to me."

In spite of the painful maternal separations (when her son was an infant, LaVine often brought him to rehearsals, cuddling him on breaks; "but now he needs to play, he needs his space; he needs to yell and scream"), the director clearly prefers working to sitting on the sidelines.

"In a business like this, even though I consider myself blessed--I work a lot, I get great choices--I'm really nervous that if I break a link in the chain, nobody will put it back," she said. Actually, LaVine may have little to worry about: a veteran of more than 90 regional productions (including, locally, "The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs" at the Odyssey and the recent "Night Owls" at the Cast), she heads the play development series at Long Beach's International City Theatre and teaches acting at Long Beach City College.

LaVine, a Cleveland native, started out as an actress (income supplements then included selling sandwiches door-to-door and packaging jockstraps at Frederick's of Hollywood) and got an early break as a regular on TV's "General Hospital."

"It was during the days of Luke and Laura," she said with an apologetic grimace. "Laura had three friends. I was the white, middle-class one. Her name was Betty. Totally inconsequential and unnecessary." Worst of all, she said, "I didn't like doing it. And the truth is, I wasn't a very good actress. I like to do things well; I got no satisfaction knowing I wasn't very good. I didn't enjoy the business side, I don't like all the Hollywood-schmollywood stuff."

A late '70s foray into directing quickly put her on the right course. "I kind of grew into it; it was a natural progression," she said. "And I've been very lucky, you know: All my life I knew I wanted to be in this world. I love what I do. I get paid for it. I get scripts that make me tingle. But sure, it's a tough career. It's not something where I can pick and choose, sit back and wait for the phone to ring with a good job."

Maybe due to that, the workaholic spirit rarely flags. "Recently, there was a theater project I said no to," she said. "So I'm learning. I'm getting better."

"A Shayna Maidel"

Tiffany Theatre, 8552 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 652-6165.

At 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, indefinitely. Tickets are $18.50 to $22.50.

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