Encore Michigan

‘Eight Nights’ is gripping and powerful at Detroit Public Theatre

Review October 16, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI—Anyone who thinks that the Holocaust is some distant event in history disconnected from the presence isn’t paying attention to anything around them today.

Hamas has invaded Israel with hatred and violence in their minds and hearts for Jewish people that is as caustic and barbaric as what the Nazis concocted in the 1930s and early 40s. Anti-Semitism is on the rise globally, and especially in the U.S.

In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League tabulated 3,697 Anti-Semitic incidents throughout the United States. This is a 36% increase from the 2,717 incidents tabulated in 2021 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking Anti-Semitic incidents in 1979.

Into this era and atmosphere, Playwright Jennifer Maisel wrote Eight Nights,”which premiered in 2019 and is now getting a stellar Michigan premiere production here at The Detroit Public Theatre.

Rebecca (Rivka Borek), a girl of 19, arrives in New York City, reunited with her father, Erich (Eric Gutman). She is broken and timid, having been liberated from Dachau by a U.S. soldier, Benjamin (Henri Franklin.] Her Mother and sisters died in the camps.

The structure of the play is that we watch Rebecca mature through the years and decades. Ms. Borek ultimately also plays Rebecca’s daughter Amy and then her granddaughter, Nina. We see her journey to 1964, 1978, 1988, 1996, 2007 and 2016.

Ms. Maisel uses Hannukah in each of those years, touching on the lighting of the candles, to signify the hope that must never be lost even when the evils of the world are trying to crush one’s spirit and faith. It also works as a deftly chosen device to ground the passage of time and connect Rebecca to the generations of her daughter and then granddaughter.

The older Rebecca is played by Sarah Winkler, who inhabits the aging Rebecca with a heart warming love and liberal empathy that she earned in Dachau. If you have seen your family and friends marched into showers that weren’t showers at all, and as she says as an older woman, taste the ashes of your loved ones on your tongue as they blew through the air like snowflakes all around you, you quite naturally develop a tolerance and acceptance of all forms of love between people—whether it is when her daughter gets pregnant out of wedlock at 25 or when her grand daughter finds her way in a lesbian relationship.

Ms. Borek is versatile and stellar playing three generations, each time perfectly wearing the time she is playing on her face and body movements. Her subtle costumes, designed by Christopher Vergara, help the creative transformations. Mr. Gutman is a revelation in this excellent play, playing both the Jewish father racked with guilt and worry over him being spared the camps, while his family suffered so terribly. We are used to seeing him in comedy and singing roles..Here, he brings vitality, gravitas and pain all at once to Erich. And then, at the end of the story, he inhabits Joram, a Muslim immigrant bewildered and vulnerable as he escaped war-torn Syria into friendly and mysteriously (to him) generous arms and faces in New York.

Michael Lopetrone returns to Detroit from New York City to play Aaron, Erich’s friend and eventually Rebecca’s husband. His depiction is sensitive, solid, loving, and he makes you worry about him a little. It’s a delicate and rich portrayal.

Mr. Franklin’s appearance as Benjamin (and later video producer Matt in the last stages of the story) is reassuring. He seems to make every part he plays look easy, even though it isn’t. He exhibits both the strength he deeloped as a soldier, and the vulnerability of someone who can’t ever forget the atrocities he witnessed, and is tortured with nightmares and sleepless nights. Janai Lashon plays Benjamin’s loving and devoted wife Arlene, and fortunately Maisel has given her some edge and spice so her part has more dimension to it than it might in the hands of a lesser playwright. She also reappears near the end of the play as Nina’s girlfriend.

The thing that ties the decades together is Rebecca’s difficulty coping with the shattering experience at Dachau and her bewilderment over her family wanting to hear about it all and share the pain, as well as the pride over her survival. The catch-phrase adopted by Jews, as well as Christians, for decades is “Never Forget,” about the Holocaust. Rebecca can’t ever forget the horrors and heartbreak, and she understandably does not want anyone else to have to experience it.

Perfect is a word rarely thrown around in theatre criticism. But Maisel has written as perfect a play that has ever hit the stage. The dialogue, the structure, the symbolism in the set, designed by Sarah Pearline, a rent-controlled apartment that stays in the family through the decades; it all hangs together perfectly. All the details that Maisel weaves into the tapestry of Eight Nights has a reason and role in the story. Not a syllable or thought is wasted. How appropriate since Rebecca survived in part by snatching the odd discarded apple core or crust of bread to ward off starvation when the Dachau guards were late by a day perhaps in feeding their prisoners even the meager sustenance they dished out with hatred.

Directed by Mayra Mazor. Matt Taylor designed lighting. Cornell Jermaine on make-up and hair design, which is a critical part of the play as the players age through the decades. Kate Hopgood on sound. Laurence Vance on props.

This is very much a story about family that sustains us, drives us to survive, to love and even to pay forward our blessings with sympathy, empathy and generosity. It’s also about the complicated process of healing.

It may not be possible to keep dry eyes to the end. But don’t let the possibility of feeling these characters and their story deeply keep you away. Indeed, it is all the more reason to want to see it before it leaves town.

Ticket and show information can be found at Detroit Public Theatre.