On Sunday, March 5, the Conejo Players Theatre will be presenting a staged reading of The Nameless Star, a 1942 play written by Romanian playwright Mihail Sebastian about a chance encounter at a remote train station between a modest astronomy professor at a local girls’ school and a glamorous young woman, a stowaway who finds herself stranded after being tossed off an express train for not having the necessary fare. Producer Elena Mills recalled the play from her childhood and has spent years wanting to bring it to the stage, which has resulted in this special theatrical “experiment.” Assisting Mills is veteran producer Dick Johnson, one of the founding fathers of the Conejo Players who was only too willing to help Mills bring her vision to reality. “Somewhere in one of our conversations she mentioned that she had translated a play that she loved as a child and had the opportunity to translate a Russian production of it,” Johnson said recently. “We call it The Nameless Star but it has been published as The Star With No Name.” The original name of the play was Steaua Fara Nume but it has since been made into a film in French (Mona, L’étoile Sans Nom, 1966), directed by Henri Colpi, and a film for television in the former Soviet Union (Bezymyannaya Zvezda, 1979), directed by Mikhail Kozakov.
Sebastian (1907 – 1945) was a Jewish/Romanian writer, playwright and essayist who began his career in the early 1930s writing short stories. His first novel was inspired by the anti-Semitism he experienced in pre-World War II Eastern Europe, which resulted in a scandal as Sebastian was attacked by both the increasingly fascist press as well as those who were resisting the threats of Adolf Hitler’s regime. During World War II, Sebastian recounted Nazi anti-Semitism in a diary that exposed much of the hatred and criminal acts against Jews in the name of German nationalism. Sebastian died shortly after war’s end, a mysterious victim of a road accident in Bucharest after being hit by a truck. He was only 37.
The village depicted in Sebastian’s play is similar to the one encountered by the stranded police orchestra in the 2017 Broadway musical The Band’s Visit. The story takes place during the 1930s in a quiet town along the Bucharest-Sinai express train route. Life is routine and predictable and its residents pass the time at the village’s tiny railroad station, watching the trains go by. It is here where the professor is waiting to retrieve a long-sought, rare book on astronomy that had been delivered by an earlier train. When he sees the desperation of the girl who has been ejected from the train, he offers his home to her as a refuge for the night. During the night they become acquainted and share discoveries about the heavens and about themselves.
Dick Johnson was fascinated by the story, having read many original plays while studying for his master’s degree at UCLA. “When I read it, I really got caught up in it. Elena speaks Russian but her translation wasn’t very conversational so I asked her if I could work on it a little bit so I did it and she liked it, and when I’d make a mistake she’d correct me. We found out that there are a lot of words that have different meanings in different languages and translate strangely. But we put it together. After we put a cast together, we had one reading in her house, and from that reading we learned quite a bit.”
Mills is understandably excited to finally see this play that she has loved all of her life finally materialize on stage under her direction. “I love this story, because it’s not a Cinderella story. This story is about choices a person makes, not because he is good or bad, but because of his character’s beliefs and the cirumstances. I love this story and the characters because they are real, not just good or just bad, they are real people. It’s not a tragedy and it’s not a drama, but despite its sad ending, it is still a romantic comedy. In every good comedy you find drama, even a tragedy, but the secret of a great play, in my opinion, is to see everything with humor and to show all sides of every character and situation.”
Admission to the reading of The Nameless Star is free. The show starts at 6pm. Conejo Player Theatre is located at 351 S. Moorpark Rd. in Thousand Oaks.