Donald Munro

Donald Munro: ‘Janka’ makes powerful transition to New York stage

NEW YORK — Janka got a professional set. It was stunning. She got a professional lighting design. It was tender, nuanced and emphatic. She got a professional director and producer, a dressing room with a star on it and a professional stage manager calling out, “Five minutes to curtain.”

Yes, Janka made it to 36th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, where she appeared six times a week at the little June Havoc Theatre here. (The show closes, Saturday, May 2.) To see this remarkable woman brought to life with such grace and style — and in such an exquisitely designed production — was to make you want to grip the hand of the actor who plays her and say simply:

Thank you.

Thank you, Janice Noga, for the single-minded determination that it took for you to get here.

Noga and her husband, Oscar Speace, who wrote the play “Janka,” have been living a dream since April 2, when the one-woman show — based on a letter written by Speace’s mother about her time at the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration and labor camps — opened in the 98-seat theater. For years they’d wanted to bring the show to New York, and fans who had seen it in Fresno raised $50,000 to help mount an off-off-Broadway run.

In terms of the show itself, the differences between the New York version and prior productions were striking.

First off, the set: Janka had an entire living room with couch, two chairs, lamp, and coffee. (In most prior productions the set has been minimal, little more than a chair and table with a music stand to hold the script. But more on that in a moment.) Designer Richard Hoover situated the furniture in a black-box-style space where you could see to the back of the theater, with two props — a suitcase and violin case — stuck enigmatically to the wall. A section of curved metal scaffolding formed an arc over her head, off of which hang items that reminded Janka of her life: a teddy bear, an American flag, a gun, a tea kettle, a pair of scissors.

The effect was gently surreal, at once a space of coziness and comfort but also enclosure that could signal confinement.

Noga wore a simple black costume throughout: loafers, slacks, turtleneck, vest, with a Star of David necklace.

Travis Sawyer’s lighting design alternated between subtle warmth as Noga captured her mother-in-law’s happier moments with her family and stark determination as she related horrific details of life in the camps. At one point Janka stood up straight and marched forward to the edge of the stage where she was bathed in a fierce, unrelenting glow. You could almost feel the harshness of a concentration camp spotlight swinging unrelentingly through a dark, frozen night.

By far the most noticeable difference in the New York production, however, was that Noga memorized the entire 90-minute show.

Before, in productions in Fresno and on the fringe-festival circuit, Noga had the script in front of her as a safety blanket. Partly it’s because she didn’t perform the show often enough to commit it to memory. But mostly it was due to her medical history. A brain tumor and subsequent surgery 18 years ago affected her speech and memory.

Producer Tracy Hostmyer, a Fresno State theater graduate who lives in New York, told her she had to memorize the show if it was going to New York. Director James Phillip Gates, who with Hostmyer co-founded the Roust Theatre Company, was adamant about it as well.

And Noga learned the script. She started in September.

Though she had a few slight stumbles in the show I saw on Wednesday, April 29, they could easily be assumed to have been part of an old woman’s mannerisms. Otherwise it was perfect.

Without Noga having to be tied to a script on a stand, that gave her the freedom to roam about the stage, and Gates took full advantage of that. She rarely stopped moving except in rare forceful moments when she delivered her most searing lines standing still for emphasis.

Gates crafted a sturdy emotional arc to the play, which is told in flashbacks and the present in the early 1990s. (There’s an element of the future tense as well, with Janka calmly telling us of her own death to come in just a few years.)

Instead of the play sounding like a reading, it throbbed with dramatic intensity. Transitions between happy and sad memories were abrupt and effective. At one point, talking about a happy memory of sitting on her father’s lap, Noga abruptly shifted into an almost robotic trance as she recounted his death in the crematorium.

The emotional moments were there in earlier incarnations of the play in Fresno, but in this version they were far better clarified and communicated. Noga found the whimsical, musical cadence of Janka’s Eastern European accent and the gravelly catch in her voice as her character swelled with emotion.

When I’ve seen the play previously, I always saw and heard a little bit of Janice on stage. This time, it was 100% Janka.

Most of all, Noga in this production found more balance between grief and anger.

Yes, Janka is sad in the play. Very sad. But she’s also angry at the loss of 63 members of her extended family and bitter at the years of her youth lost to the Nazis. “Janka” isn’t a generations-removed reflection on reconciliation. Based on the letter Janka wrote just four months after liberation, this play is a primary source, a raging recollection of a young woman pushed to the extreme, and that can’t be forgotten.

That, in turn, gave Noga a chance to develop some of the themes that most connect the audience to the story. Near the end, Janka asks: “What makes us survive? Would you have survived?”

In New York, that moment was like a blow to the gut. More power to Janka.