by Nancy Holley
Special KRL coupon code at the end of this article.
Portraying a person you have known is an opportunity and challenge afforded few actors. Janice Noga is one of the select few as she embodies Janka Festinger in the Visalia Players’ production of Janka, which opens at the Ice House Theatre on January 11, 2019.
Noga was Festinger’s daughter-in-law, and Janka was written by Festinger’s son, Oscar Speace. Thus, the production is a family affair. As such, it is a very emotional experience for both Speace and Noga. Their very beings are tied to “The Janka Project” established through Fresno Arts Council.
Noga met her future mother-in-law on a trip to New Jersey over Easter. Just before leaving for the east, Noga asked, “Is your mother going to like me?” Speace’s response, “No.”
Both women had strong personalities, and it didn’t help Noga’s position with Festinger that she was Catholic and divorced. Nevertheless, after Festinger could see that Speace was set on Noga, and Noga became set on Speace, the women settled into a relationship that worked for both of them.
After his mother’s death, Speace learned she had left a legacy—a written account of her experience during the holocaust. At the time, he was a screen writer, but decided that he wanted to write a play to honor his mother’s life, to give it meaning. Speace wanted his talented wife to portray his mother, but withheld the play from her until the first cold reading.
To Speace’s delight, Noga was swept away by the portrait of Janka that appeared through his words. There were, of course, rewrites, but that first reading solidified for them both the meaning and the importance of the project.
In the beginning, Janka was performed as a “reading” with Noga sitting on a stool behind a stand with the script and a single spotlight illuminating her, allowing her facial expressions and hand gestures to create the audience’s images of Festinger.
However, when the play was to be produced off-Broadway, the director emphasized that the script had to go. Noga would need to memorize the play. She was initially overwhelmed by the responsibility, but overcame her fears through hard work, mastering the script for the New York debut.
When asked about how she dealt with portraying a person she had known well and was her mother-in-law, she said, “I wrote my name on a piece of paper and then rolled it up in the palm of my hand and threw it away. I asked God to allow Janka to tell her story through me. When an actor gets out of her own way, magic happens.”
Noga and Speace have taken Janka to Romania as a part of their project. Initially Noga portrayed the role in an English production. Subsequently, a famous actress Maia Morgenstern embodied Festinger in a production in Romanian.
At the time of the production in Romanian, family members from Australia had come to Romania. Since they did not know the language, they asked Noga to perform the play for them in English. Noga glowed with emotion as she said, “I had the honor of doing the play in Janka’s family’s synagogue in Sighet, Romania.”
Although the holocaust is a difficult topic, the play is written in a way that entertains as well as informs. The audience is drawn in, becoming part of the story. Janka says “Maybe you can help. I’ll tell you the story. And after you hear it you tell me if I should tell him. Do we have a deal?” Noga noted, “I sometimes get verbal responses from the audience and almost always nods.”
The Visalia Players’ performances are dedicated to the memory of the last of Janka’s family’s holocaust survivors, Clara Notovitz, who died in the fall 2018.
Janka runs for A SINGLE WEEKEND. NOTE: ALL EVENING PERFORMANCES DO NOT HAVE THE SAME STARTING TIME. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on 1/11 and 1/12 and at 6 p.m. on 1/13. The single matinee is at 2 p.m. on 1/13.
For more information about the Visalia Community Players and to purchase tickets, check out their website and KRL’s article about VCP. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 734-3900. For details about local arts groups in Tulare County, visit the Visalia Arts Consortium website.
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To purchase two tickets for the price of one, enter KRLJKA in the Have a code? box on the Buy/Redeem Tickets Reservation page via the Players website.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out our new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. The first 9 episodes are now up! You can check the podcast out on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.