Felicitas, the third in Libby Skala’s trilogy of solo shows dramatizing her own family history, is like an intense cup of hot, sweet tea – both powerful and soothing.
The first play, Lilia!, paid tribute to Skala grandmother, the actress Lilia Skala. In the second, A Time to Dance, Skala brought her great-aunt Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk, a dance therapist, out of the shadows of history to brilliant, dramatic life. In Felicitas she does the same for a very different, quieter character who turns out to be just as fascinating: her great-aunt Lizi.
Felicitas “Lizi” Sofer, professional baby-nurse, single mother, Nazi-fleeing immigrant to the U.S., and rebuilder of her life and career on a new continent, attended to Skala’s own home birth along with countless others and remained in her great-niece’s life, if distantly because of her many charges, for years thereafter. As she details Lizi’s life story, Skala digs deep into the psyche of a woman who found her calling when still a young girl and pursued it with triumphant success into old age.
Accompanied by Steve May playing his simple but beautifully played mandolin score, Skala crafts a tale that’s inspirational without syrup. Lizi lived an eventful and lucky life, never marrying, never despairing, always putting one foot in front of the other as her Jewish father advised, and passing the same sage advice to her son in the new world. Skala has created a remarkable living biography out of one part detailed knowledge and research and three parts skillful composition and performance.
Lizi’s own parents were an unconventional couple, their mixed marriage not formalized till after they’d had a number of children, not all of whom survived. Skala gives voice not only to Lizi but to Lizi’s parents and her two sisters. She also calls forth Lizi’s beautiful blonde ski-instructor boyfriend Josep, who survives the war and the wehrmacht remaining devoted to Lizi and their son. But she won’t give up her nursing work or her new life in America to return to him. It really is a calling.
There’s an emblematic scene where war is approaching and Lizi discovers that she needs Josep’s signature to permit her to leave the country with their son Julius. The problem is, she has never told him of Julius’s existence. When they meet, Josep beseeches her to leave the boy with him. Having secured the signature, she reaches down to take the toddler’s hand and lead him away.
There’s no boy on stage, but Skala makes us see the little guy all the same. She does this sort of thing throughout – aided, it must be said, by projections, touching and sometimes funny, of drawings, old family photos, and historical images.
Skala makes fascinating characters of them all and a compelling, fully realized one of Lizi herself. It’s a performance that engages our emotions while respecting our intelligence and leaves us feeling uplifted, and that’s quite a feat. There are two more performances of Felicitas at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Try not to miss it.