Actor felt a ‘magnet pull’ to latest play

A story about family and survival, A Pretty Girl — A Shayna Maidel runs Sept. 13–28 at the Chemainus Theatre.

Winnipeg-based actor Harry Nelken says he felt a magnetic pull to A Pretty Girl — A Shayna Maidel, the latest production at the Chemainus Theatre Festival.

Partly, it was the connections he saw with his own family, and partly it was the play’s messages about family, love and survival.

In A Pretty Girl, written in 1986 by Barbara Lebow, the consequences of one innocent decision change the course of a family’s life forever.

After many years of separation, Polish sisters Lusia and Rayzel “Rose” Weiss have reunited in a collision of vastly different worlds. Amid the chaos of becoming reacquainted, each girl struggles to honour her past and live for the future, according to a press release from the Chemainus Theatre.

The story begins 20 years after scarlet fever, the Depression, and World War II divided their family between Holocaust-seized Poland and sheltered New York. Meeting now as grownups in mid-century Manhattan, the sisters share little in common beyond their fragile bloodline, states the release.

Nelken plays Mordechai, the girls’ “blustery and imperious father.”

While checking the websites of various theatre companies looking for work, Nelken came across A Pretty Girl.

“It had an enormous impact on me because of personal connections resonating with me,” he said. “My parents are survivors of Warsaw, Poland, from the end of the war to coming to Canada in 1948. There are some deep insights I got about my parents that I didn’t get from them.

“I think the magnet pull for me was that it was a wonderful gift and a chance to get to know my parents better from their pre-Canada days and what it meant for them to lose everything and come here and start over. There are a lot of personal resonances.”

Nelken feels the play is all about survival and an underlying theme of flesh and blood.

“It’s all about relationships, abandonment, betrayal, deep hurt and that’s kind of balanced with the more positive human emotions of re-connecting,” he said. “There are moments in the play that kind of hit me, and I’m sure the audience will feel things too. It’s just a story about family and the impasses and what’s needed to break those down and become a family again. It’s a long, hard road, but the affirmation of life is what shines through in this play.”

Nelken feels the opportunity to act in A Pretty Girl is a gift, and he is eager to share that gift with his family, many of whom will get a chance to see the play. He’d like to say a big hello to his daughters Rachel in Vancouver and Rhea in Winnipeg, as well as his bother Mayer in Richmond and sister Miriam in Victoria.

This is Nelken’s second production with the Chemainus Theatre Festival. In 2010, he played Al Lewis in The Sunshine Boys. Nelken says that was a fantastic experience, and during his time here, he got his conure parrot, Baby Mischief, from Sooke.

“We take her everywhere we go, and she’s here again,” he said.

A Pretty Girl runs from Sept. 13-28. Tickets are available at or by calling 1-800-565-7738.