Donald Munro

For ‘Janka,’ a farewell to New York and hello to a lifetime memory

Janka was a survivor.

Janice was a survivor.

Perhaps that’s what makes the unlikely confluence of two lives — one a scrappy 22-year-old Romanian woman who barely scraped through the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, the other a theater-loving 69-year-old Fresno woman who fought back, starting one sentence at a time, when a brain tumor rocked her life — so meaningful in the play “Janka.”

Both women grabbed hold of the years nearly taken from them and never let go.

In a small, slightly worn off-off-Broadway theater on a midtown street lined with towering gray office buildings a few blocks away from the bright lights of Times Square, those two lives intersected Saturday night in a special way in the closing New York performance of “Janka.” In the audience were 35 members of Janka Festinger Speace’s extended family, who flew to New York from as far away as Australia.

Playing Janka on stage in the one-woman show was her daughter-in-law, Janice Noga. In the New York audience, as he has been for every performance, was Oscar Speace, Janka’s son, who based the script on a letter his mother wrote to an uncle four months after she was liberated from the camps. He and his twin brother, David Speace, didn’t know about the letter until after their mother died.

A documentary film and stage production based upon the letter followed.

After years of performing the show in Fresno and on the fringe-festival circuit, supporters in the central San Joaquin Valley raised $50,000 to help send it to New York. Noga and Speace kicked in more than $20,000 of their own.

People talk a lot about achieving their dreams, but few dreams are as specific as Noga’s. Ever since she recovered enough from her 1994 brain surgery and ensuing seizures to perform the play in a staged reading format, her dream has been to perform “Janka” in New York.

To check in with Noga by phone in the weeks leading up to the opening of “Janka” was like talking to an incredulous child who beyond her wildest hopes is finally passing through the gates of Disneyland. When you’re a kid, wishes can seem Everest-heights away, completely out of the realm of possibility.

This comparison isn’t meant to trivialize Noga’s dream or label it childish. It’s more about capturing the pure, unabashed joy — and astonishment — she feels. How many of us have truly felt that since childhood?

“I still can’t believe this is happening,” Noga says on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street during a nightly walk to the theater. “I’m in NEW YORK.”

Her voice hurtles to the end of the sentence with a happy, husky glee, just like Janka’s does when she is recounting something pleasurable, like a memory of her twin sons.

For weeks, she and her husband walked 19 blocks each way from their rented studio apartment. Then it was through the doors of the June Havoc Theatre complex, up a first-floor staircase smelling inexplicably of nail-polish remover, and a nightly ritual settling into a tidy dressing room with a star on the door and a counter full of cards from Fresno well-wishers. When curtain time came, she took a deep breath and walked on stage.

“Every night I love it because that’s my living room, and that’s my story,” she said.

The play’s the thing

No one in the audience cares that you had brain surgery, director James Phillip Gates told Noga early on in the “Janka” rehearsal process. They don’t care if it took five or six months to learn your lines.

“I told her: ‘I don’t want to talk about the surgery. I’m not even looking at it that way. You’re just a wonderful actor who is taking the next step to tell an amazing story,’ ” he said. “I didn’t allow her any indulgence, that’s for sure.”

The brain surgery is part of Noga’s story, of course, but it’s necessarily a backstage one. She was playing Mama Rose in a Good Company Players production of “Gypsy” in 1994, the same year her mother-in-law died, when she suddenly lost the ability to speak.

She thought it was just exhaustion. A trip to the hospital and a CAT scan told her otherwise.

Years of speech therapy and other methods — including textual Shakespeare work — followed. Today you can still hear her slip up on words occasionally, sometimes a sliver of a pause as her brain races to match language and speech.

Noga had always performed “Janka” with a copy of a script in front of her. Producer Tracy Hostmyer, a Fresno State graduate who with Gates co-founded the Roust Theatre Company that presented the play, knew that Gates wouldn’t allow an actor to read from a script in a New York production.

“Tracy told me he would kick my butt, and he did,” Noga said. “If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have felt as good about this performance and this show.”

For any actor to memorize a one-person show is an accomplishment. Noga estimates it takes her 10 times as long to memorize a passage as someone who didn’t have brain surgery.

When she arrived in New York in March to begin the rehearsal process, she worked between seven and eight hours a day on the weekends with Gates, drilling through the dialogue. He was demanding. Sometimes they would spend an hour or two on just a few lines.

Even in the last week of the run, Noga was still running through the show every afternoon before the performance, etching the words in her brain.

How big a deal is it that Noga can perform the play from memory?

“Huge. Amazing. She is a woman of fortitude, and she’s playing a woman of fortitude,” said Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players and a longtime Noga supporter. “It’s where art and life are parallel.”

Finding an audience

Audiences were thin for many performances of “Janka.” For some people, that might remove a bit of the sheen from this golden tale of a dream come true. Not for Noga and Speace.

The Roust Theatre Company wanted to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau labor camp, where Janka and her one surviving sister ended the war. Hostmyer, the producer, figured that New York Jewish organizations would flock to the show to mark the occasion.

But opening in April was a tough call. Previews started the week of Easter and Passover, which likely depressed turnout. And it has been the busiest Broadway season in years, with a slew of shows opening in mid-April to make the Tony Award deadline. All compete for media oxygen.

Probably the biggest disappointment was the lack of attention from big-city media. The show did receive some lovely reviews from smaller outlets. (Writing in the blog “Stage Buddy,” Tyler Ianuzi was impressed: “Noga switches from mild, storytelling mother to despair and anger flawlessly, creating a character onstage with depth and history and utmost realism.”)

The production hired an expensive publicist, Sam Rudy Media Relations, to pitch the show to name reviewers, but it turned out to be a tough sell.

“If we had gotten a New York Times review, the houses would have been full,” Speace says.

Still, both Speace and Noga didn’t seem very down about the patchy attendance, which often numbered in the 20s.

For him, this 12-year experience of shaping a play based on his mother has been, in the end, about finding that mother. It was difficult for him to mourn her death because she seemingly took her secrets to her grave.

“This has been a true journey of discovery,” he says.

Speace had his favorite place to be after each show: standing by the concession stand and waiting to talk to audience members, many of whom emerged from the show wiping away tears.

Some had family members in the Holocaust. Others wanted to unpack a particular detail of the script — more information about the town in Romania where Janka came from, say, or the American Red Cross operation she worked with after liberation.

To be able to come out of the production and talk to the son of the woman with whom they had just been cocooned was an intense personal touch. Then to hug that woman’s daughter-in-law (if you spend five minutes with Noga, there will probably be at least three hugs involved) added to the experience.

“This show should be full,” many told Noga and Speace.

On a daily basis, Noga simply seemed overjoyed that people cared enough to listen to her 100-minute story.

“It doesn’t matter about the size of the audience,” she said. “The people who were there were supposed to be there.”

Committing to memory

Jeffrey Snyder has known Noga for more than 20 years, when she was on the board that hired him as executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Central California. He was there for her during her brain surgery. They’ve remained close friends ever since.

When she started talking years ago about her “Janka” dream, he would always tell her: “When you do the show in New York, I’ll be there.”

He made good on his promise.

He and his husband, Wayne Tanaka, flew to New York early in the run. She didn’t know they were coming. The afternoon of the show, Snyder was nervous. “I knew she could memorize the script,” he said. “But I always felt she didn’t trust herself to know it. What if she blanks? What’s going to happen?”

“Afterward I said to her, ‘Janice, a couple of times you stumbled on words. If people didn’t know you, didn’t know your history, they would think it was part of the old woman she was playing.’ ”

The biggest change in Noga because of her New York theater run, her friends and director say, is that she has gained confidence as an actor.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, another close friend of Noga’s who saw the show several times back home, came to New York with her husband, George, to see Noga perform.

When Noga came out after the show to say hello to Mims and her husband, she was still caught up in the emotional turmoil of the character. Tears in her eyes, she looked at Mims almost pleadingly. “Did I do OK?” she asked.

She got praise and raves all around. Mims marveled about that moment afterward, saying: “She really doesn’t know how good she is.”

Actors are an ego-driven bunch, and it’s rare to find one who is so open with her own insecurities.

Noga does acknowledge that she is so much better at Janka than she was before, which in itself makes the experience worth it.

“I feel like I inhabit Janka now,” she said. “Before, there were performances when I was a fly on the wall watching myself play Janka. This time I leave myself in the dressing room, and I just pray that Janka tells the story.”

Last show

Forty-five minutes before her last performance of “Janka” on Saturday night in the June Havoc Theatre, Noga sat in her dressing room and took a deep breath.

“On May 31, I turn 70,” she said. “I think it’s significant that yesterday, May 1, was the 70th anniversary of Janka’s liberation from the Dachau camp.”

Two women. Two new leases on life.

Ron Silver of Winnipeg, Canada, was in the audience. His mother, Betty, was Janka’s sister. “For our family, this is big,” he said.

Marilyn Rosenbaum of Sydney, Australia, isn’t a blood relation of Janka’s, but the relationship between her family and Janka’s goes all the way back to the Romanian town they were from.

On the last night there were tears, flowers, champagne, more flowers. As relatives and friends partied into the evening, a portrait of Janka Festinger Speace from happier times, proudly displayed in the theater lobby, gazed serenely down at the well-wishers. Noga was glad to celebrate, but she also was looking forward to coming home.

A New York agent approached Noga a few days ago to represent her as an actor in the New York area, but she demurred.

“I was thrilled,” she said. “I said thank you, but we love Fresno.”

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