You gotta have chutzpah to write a small-scale musical about the Holocaust, so full marks to Theresa Tova for “Still the Night,” a hugely ambitious project written for two actors and three musicians. A personal odyssey inspired by Tova’s “dreams, memories and nightmares,” the musical’s emotions are honest and powerful, but at times the dramaturgy is muddy as Tova veers off into scenes that are more important to her than to her audience.
Still, when the show works (and it does so more often than not), Tova’s attempt to come to grips with her destiny as the child of Holocaust survivors is compelling and illuminating. In one particularly memorable song set in postwar America, a character angrily insists, “I will not be a Jew for you,” and that simple lyric provides more insight into discrimination than any number of speeches.
Tova tells the story of two Polish cousins (both named Bryna) who escaped from the Nazis and joined the Partisans. Along the way they are hung on crosses, raped, almost shot and forced to turn to prostitution to survive. In one harrowing scene they are in hiding with a group of Partisans when one of them gives birth. Worried that the baby might cry and give them all away, they are forced to strangle the child as soon as it emerges.
The heart of the piece lies not in the wartime atrocities, but in the way each survivor deals with experiences and memories after the war. One cousin, outgoing, resourceful and responsible, becomes embittered and angry; the quieter cousin adjusts to a happy life in Israel.
Tova plays one Bryna, Liza Balkan the other. They work well together, and if the balance topples occasionally it’s because smoky-voiced Tova is a high-octane performer whose huge energy threatens to swallow Balkan.
With just a bit more dramaturgical input, this piece could sail to a bright future.