November 18, 2019

Eight Decades of Family Drama Unfold in Hanukkah-Set ‘Eight Nights’

Zoe Yale, Arye Gross and Tessa Auberjonois, credit: Jenny Graham

the play “Eight Nights” tells a multigenerational family story incorporating multicultural perspectives about the plight of displaced, marginalized and persecuted people, past and present. 

“It’s about a German-Jewish refugee who comes to the States after the Holocaust. It’s eight nights of her life over eight decades and it weaves in the interned Japanese, the African American experience and the Muslim refugee crisis,” playwright Jennifer Maisel told the Journal before a rehearsal in the run-up to the world premiere. She took inspiration from the story of the refugee ship MS St. Louis, which was forced to return Jews to Germany in 1939 when no country would allow it entry. “I felt that it reflected the same thing as the articles about sending Muslims back. I started writing this the day after [President Donald Trump’s] inauguration in 2016.”

Of Eastern European Jewish heritage, Maisel grew up Reform on New York’s Long Island, where she attended Hebrew school, had a bat mitzvah and loved celebrating Hanukkah and Passover “because they’re family-oriented,” she said. “I love how a family takes ritual and makes it their own.” (Her previous play is titled “The Last Seder.”) 

“Eight Nights” was developed at the Antaeus Theatre Company’s Playwrights Lab in Los Angeles, where director Emily Chase directed several early readings. “It’s the Jewish experience through time, a play about generations — a sort of double helix of mothers and daughters through time,” she said. “I love what it says about the universal human experience, and specifically, what it says about the Jewish experience. It’s also about what it’s like to have a family, to be a woman, a Jewish woman, and integrated families, and how our Jewish experience should open our hearts to the immigrant experience. We believe in teshuvah. We wouldn’t want to turn away people as we were [turned away] on the St. Louis.”

New York native Chase, who has taught and directed at USC, UCLA and Shalhevet High School, grew up knowing about the immigrant experience from her Yiddish-speaking grandparents. Her father-in-law was on the Kindertransport and she had him come in to speak to the cast. 

Top row: Emily Chase, Arye Gross, Jennifer Maisel; Bottom row: Zoe Yale, Tessa Auberjonois
Photo by Taylor Anne Cullen

“Of course, actors can play what they’re not,” Chase said. “But what we loved about landing a Jewish cast is that it is in their DNA, in their cultural identity and that’s one of the subjects of the play. We inherit trauma and resilience and to have actors with an emotional connection is like a shorthand.”

“What we loved about landing a Jewish cast is that it is in their DNA, in their cultural identity, and that’s one of the subjects of the play. We inherit trauma and resilience and to have actors with an emotional connection is like a shorthand.” 

— Emily Chase

Zoe Yale plays several versions of the character Rebecca. “I get to play my grandmother, my mother and my granddaughter,” she said. “It’s an incredible challenge getting to track that lifespan, how we deal with trauma and what we try to shield our children from,” she said. Raised Orthodox in Cincinnati, she had her bat mitzvah in Israel and discovered her love of acting in Jewish day school. Her paternal grandfather also escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport. 

“Eight Nights” serves as a reminder of the lessons of the Shoah, Yale said. “The further that we move away from the Holocaust, the more you see resurgence of Holocaust deniers. We see a lot of hate and bigotry in the world, neo-Nazis popping up left and right,” she said. “Sometimes we treat history like this far-away thing but this play makes it alive, and it’s necessary that people feel that reality and see that threat. We’re only able to overcome it if we work together and take it seriously.”

Tessa Auberjonois, who plays older Rebecca, lost maternal ancestors in the Holocaust but was not raised Jewish because her parents (including actor Rene Auberjonois) were atheists. But she identifies as Jewish and has “spent time in my adult life trying to understand what Judaism is and what it means to me personally. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this role,” she said. “There’s something about being in a room full of Jewish people — a rigorous intellectual kind of discipline and a great sense of humor and a lot of heart at the same time,” she added. “It’s really special to be a part of.

“The thing that this play does so wonderfully is showing the effect that being a refugee or displaced or a victim has on a person and their family and the ripple effect that it has through time,” Auberjonois continued. “It’s a beautiful examination of that and how we forget.”

Arye Gross (“Castle,” “Glow”) portrays Rebecca’s father and also a Syrian refugee. An L.A. native who describes his connection to Judaism as “cultural and ancestral,” he has played numerous Jewish characters. For him, the lesson of “Eight Nights” is to follow Rebecca’s example in moving forward from her traumatic past by showing compassion to others. “The way to deal with the burden that we carry is not to ignore it but to move forward and to lessen someone else’s burden,” he said. “That’s what I hope people will get and understand. The oppressed and homeless and stateless should be treated with kindness and generosity.”

“The experience of the Jews is personal and special and gives us strength and depth and also can open our hearts to the needs and experiences of other people in the world and in our county,” Chase added. “As Jews, we have a call to repair the world.”

“Eight Nights” runs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale through Dec. 16.