Janka Festinger was taken from her home in Sighet, Romania, to Auschwitz in May 1944. By the end of the war, she had lost 63 family members, and only she, her brother and her sister survived. She withheld her struggles and story from her family, but in 1997 her son, Oscar Speace, discovered her written account of her life. From this 60-page letter Speace wrote “JANKA,” an emotionally charged one-woman show that tells his mother’s story in the first person.
“JANKA,” an Off-Broadway play directed by James Phillips Gates, tells Janka Festinger’s story in its entirety, not limited to her time in Auschwitz or in Europe. Janka (Janice Noga) recalls both the painful memories of her time during the war and her life after moving to the United States with her husband, a G.I. The story is full of both joyous, seemingly happily-ever-after moments and moments of intense sorrow and loss — no emotion is spared.
The show opens in a 1950s living room filled with two upholstered armchairs, a sofa, a tea set on the coffee table and many black and white photographs. Janka perfectly embodies a grandmother in her black turtleneck and vest. A black geometric structure builds somewhat of an arch upstage, from which memories hang in the form of objects, ranging from a teddy bear to a gas mask. The set is designed with so many familiar touches that it feels as though the whole theater is part of her living room. This proximity is strengthened as Janka begins to speak directly to the audience.
In the play, her life is organized into four stages: her life in Romania before the rise of Hitler, her life during the war, her life after the war with her husband Bob and her life after Bob’s death. However, the play does not adhere to this chronology. As often happens when telling a story, Janka is frequently reminded of related memories and gets off-topic. While this tendency appears natural, it does make her story a bit difficult to follow, at times.
The lighting and sound contribute enormously to the clarity of Janka’s story. Designed by Travis Sawyer, the lighting transports the audience from Janka’s living room to near-blackness, with only a blue-tinted spotlight on her in moments of intense sorrow. The blue-tinted spotlight recurs throughout the show, connecting the accounts of struggle.
Emotional vulnerability is what makes “JANKA” particularly special. Survivor’s guilt, love, distress, disbelief and joy are just some of the raw emotions that Noga shares with the audience. Her memories of moments of joy are the most powerful, and she seems to emit beams of energy when her face lights up. Speace and Noga make meaningful connections to “JANKA,” which makes it feel more authentic.
At the end of the play, it is no surprise that Noga came out to bow with tears streaming down her face, as it would be nearly impossible to not be touched by Janka Festinger’s powerfully resilient life.
“JANKA” is presented by the Roust Theater Company and is playing at the June Havoc Theatre through May 3.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 21 print edition. Email Willa Tellekson-Flash at [email protected]