Horrors, like the Holocaust carried out by Nazi Germany, “don’t happen here,” idealistic German Jewish patriarch Erich tells his daughter Rebecca after they both make it to the United States alive in Antaeus Theatre’s new production, “Eight Nights.”
Rebecca, who survived the death camps but watched her mother and sisters perish, isn’t so sure. Her father, played by Arye Gross, had left Germany earlier and avoided the worst of the war.
“The crazy thing is, it is happening here,” said Jennifer Maisel, scribe of the new play that had its world premiere on Nov. 8 at Antaeus.
In early 2017, President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban barring immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. That day, Maisel said she began writing what would become “Eight Nights.”
Told over a lifetime — or one night of Hanukkah each decade for 80 years — the play tells a story of intergenerational trauma that is hopeful and funny but tempered with a large helping of wary vigilance. The walls in the play talk, in a sense, reflecting the changing period-relevant aesthetic.
Arriving in a New York apartment after the end of World War II, Rebecca, played by Zoe Yale in her younger years, can barely speak. A friendly knock at the door brings back waves of terror at the prospect of being discovered by someone wishing her harm.
As Rebecca, portrayed in her later years by Tessa Auberjonois, allows the ghosts of her past to not just haunt her but guide her, she strides into a successful future with an iron-clad will. The problem is that the armored exterior she cultivates to keep going also prevents some of those closest to her from seeing her true self.
About midway through the production, Yale switches roles to play Rebecca’s daughter and, eventually, her granddaughter. Auberjonois, who begins as the specter of Rebecca’s mother, later embodies the role of her on-stage daughter. The fluidity of roles underscores the notion that this is a story about more than one family.
“There’s a lot to think about. It’s the microcosm and the macrocosm,” Emily Chase, the production’s director, said. “It’s weighty and deep but also theatrical.”
Supporting characters in the play reveal that they too carry their own personal or inherited trauma. A black soldier, played by Christopher Watson, who helped save Rebecca and defeat the Nazis is terrorized by nightmares of the war — as well as his poor treatment for the color of his skin in the military and at home. Steve, the Japanese American boyfriend of Rebecca’s daughter, portrayed by Devin Kawaoka, recounts his family members’ internment during WWII.
“The traumas visited on these communities aren’t the same, you can’t say they’re the same, but we can try to move through the healing together and alongside each other,” Maisel said.
Developed at Anteaus’ writing lab and set to run through Dec. 16, “Eight Nights” is one of two new productions the classics-oriented theater has staged this season. The other, “The Abuelas,” about a recent violent period in Argentina’s past, runs through Nov. 25.
For more information, visit antaeus.org.