Theater & Arts

The Holocaust drama ‘Janka,’ on the road from Fresno, faces first New York audience April 2

The big day for Janice Noga and Oscar Speace has come. You can toss in every “wow” qualifier you can think of: It’s incredible. Remarkable. Against the odds. A pie-in-the-sky dream that actually is coming true.

The one-woman Holocaust drama “Janka” will play its first preview Thursday, April 2, in an off-off-Broadway production of the Roust Theatre Company at the June Havoc Theatre in New York City.

“Janka” — which tells the story of Speace’s mother, Janka Festinger Speace, and how she survived at Auschwitz when most of her family perished — is a local Fresno production that for 12 years had played occasional performances around the central San Joaquin Valley and at fringe festivals and colleges around the country.

Noga, who plays her mother-in-law, and Speace, her husband, who wrote the script, traveled with a suitcase stuffed with mounted photos of Janka and her relatives that became the show’s “set.”

Now the show has a professional scenic designer, lighting designer and director. After a week of previews, it officially opens April 9 and will play through May 2.

Noga and Speace always wanted to take the show to New York but didn’t know how they could afford it. That is where charitable people from the Fresno area stepped in. In October, benefit performances at the 2nd Space Theatre raised more than $10,000. And through a fund-raising campaign, the total reached nearly $50,000. Noga and Speace added $22,000 of their own money to the pot.

I wrote an extensive piece about “Janka” in October just before the benefit performances, and in it I detailed one of the major challenges Noga has overcome to reach the point where she can perform in a full-length one-woman show in front of New York audiences (and critics). In 1994, Noga had emergency surgery for a brain tumor after she suddenly lost her ability to speak while in a Good Company Players performance of “Gypsy.” Occasional epileptic seizures followed, which are now under control.

Slowly she regained her ability to speak. But it’s been a long haul. And she still is working hard at it.

Most of us would blanch at having to memorize more than 100 minutes worth of lines. To do so on a New York stage after having to learn to speak again gives this story an added layer of wonder.

Noga has made several trips to New York to prepare for the play. She arrived March 20 to stay through the run.

She has been working hard, rehearsing by herself and with director James Phillip Gates seven hours a day and more. On a recent Saturday they worked from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on just four pages of the play.

On Monday, the production “loaded in” to the 98-seat June Havoc Theatre, located on 36th Street just a short walk from Times Square. (Any theater under 100 seats is considered an off-off-Broadway theater.) The set was completed by mid-day Tuesday, with tech rehearsals Tuesday and Wednesday.

After that: the first preview.

I will be following “Janka’s” progress as it continues the run, including opening night and reviews from the critics.

How is Noga feeling? “I thought I would be just sick with terror,” she says. “I am not feeling that. I am feeling we are getting closer and closer to a solid, put-together show. I can’t wait until the audience is there.”

Break a leg tonight, Janice.

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