A young actress from Wilmette, Hannah Antman, will star in a new theatrical event
"The Apple Does Not Fall: Journeys of a Russian-Jewish Family," having its Chicago-area premier in August at The Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston.
The event features two plays, written by Skokie resident and Russian-Jewish emigre, Bena Shklyanoy and Kevin Olson of FirstHand Theatrical, plus a short film "Cultural Inheritance" created by Shklyanoy's granddaughter, Abigail Matz.
The plays, which features two original stories, "And Then What?" and "How Many Bushels Am I Worth?" will have a ten-day run from August 16 to the 26.
Both plays are written from stories which are eye-witness accounts by Bena Shklanoy of an ordinary Russian-Jewish family and their life-experiences from the pre-Bolshevik and Soviet eras to the 1970s immigration to the United States. Antman will play the lead and will portray the life of Bena as well as that of Bena's grandmother in pre-Bolshevik days.
"I have never played a real person, before," says Antman, 21, who recently graduated with a BFA from Boston University's School of Theater. "Playing 'Bena' is an acting challenge - but Bena has given me permission to do this. It is my interpretation and done with a great deal of respect as well as empathy. I am imposing a certain perspective on someone else's story."
"I watch her," says Bena, "and I think 'is she talking about me?' and 'is that true, is that how it was?' as I see Hannah being me on stage. It's an odd feeling! But, my grandmother's story, which I wrote, comes alive when I watch Hannah in this play!"
When the Iron Curtain opened for Soviet Jews in 1967, Russian families made agonizing decisions about leaving Russia. Leave one's loved ones? Leave the only home they had known? Go to America where Russian newspaper propaganda showed pictures of extreme poverty; of men warming their hands over fires in garbage cans; of homeless people living in tent cities?
Yet, thousands immigrated when they had the chance in the early 1970s.
Among the first were the Shklyanoys, including a grandmother, mother, father, and two daughters, 18 months and eight years. Those daughters, now assimilated and pursuing their own lives and careers, do not remember life in the Soviet Union. They have no recall of the communal apartment, the long lines for food or that being Jewish was a reason to get beaten-up by a classmate at school.
It is a story that resonates not only with those who came from the Soviet Union, but with refugees fleeing oppressive regimes around the globe. The stories of culture shock and adjustment to a new world are universal.
"And Then What?" opened to critical acclaim in Providence RI in 2017. The magazine, "Broadway World" called it a "rare piece of theater that truly touches every emotion...captivates from the moment the first lines are spoken."
"How Many Bushels Am I Worth?" makes its debut at the Piven Theater and tells the audience about the journey from the Soviet Union to Chicago. Painting a picture of life in the Soviet Union, the play focuses on what brought her and her husband to make the difficult decision to leave as well as what it cost them mentally and in practical terms. The play also applauds the unwavering determination of the Save Soviet Jewry movement and support of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in the United States.
The new short film, "Cultural Inheritance: Stories of Grandchildren of Soviet Jewish Immigrants" will be shown at select performances of the play. This film connects the vision of the Soviet Jewish immigrants to the cultural identity and impact on their young children and grandchildren today.
This film is a JUF Russian Jewish division's Tikkun Fellowship project by Abigail Matz and is funded by Genesis Philanthropy Group.
The plays are the brainchild of Kevin Olson of Rhode Island based "FirstHand Theatrical" which creates and presents original productions using primary source material drawn mainly from diverse personal, cultural and social histories and other writings.
The cast, designers and crew are experienced Chicago-based artists.Antman, a 2014 graduate of New Trier High School, was active in the Piven Young People's Company. "It was a top program for young acting students," she states, "and it was a great experience. I loved it. I was also active in the theater program at New Trier and it was awesome with outstanding teachers." At Boston University School of Theater, she was cast in eight different shows.
Author Bena Shklyanoy spent 11 years tracing her family. What she learned spans two world wars, the Bolshevik revolution, annihilated shtetls (villages), the Holocaust, the Soviet empire and, finally, the large-scale immigration of Soviet Jews to the United States.