The background for the play is an extraordinary instance of international charitable rescue. It was clear by 1938 that Hitler intended to attack his enemies, and that he considered the Jews of Germany to be internal enemies rather than fellow countrymen. The kindertransports were organized during a brief window of opportunity when humanitarian efforts convinced the various governments that placing train loads of Jewish children with relatives or volunteer foster parents beyond Germany's borders was a good idea. It wasn't an obvious or easy idea-- German speakers would be automatically suspect when war broke out, and anti-semitism was by no means confined to Germany but was rife in the countries Hitler sought to subdue as well. However, some 10,000 children did travel by special trains to England, wearing identification tags around their necks, and were taken in by English families in the hope that they would be re-united with their own families as soon as possible. Very few of them ever were. Author Samuels interviewed surviving transportees, and her 1992 script explores the meanings those long ago events were assigned in the lives of those affected by them. This is not just a matter of historical interest. Contemporary "ethnic cleansing" as well as economic inequity has sent millions more fleeing for their lives, and refugees and orphans at this moment, too, are struggling to find new homes and forge new identities. Current headlines blare the passionate political forces warring over six year old Elian Gonzalez, whose mother died fleeing with him from Cuba to the USA. What family, what fatherland, can "save" him, provide a happy ending? And who should make the decision? Will the child suppress any part of himself unacceptable to whoever lays claim to him? Or some day wildly resent that he could be expected to do so? We live in stories, the stories we are told and the ones we tell ourselves.
Samuel's play is set in the tidy attic of a modest house in Manchester, and the framing first scene begins in "present" time, showing college age Faith's prickly relationship with her mother and her ambivalence about leaving home to live on her own. This scene is intercut with a scene from 1938 where young mother Helga is bracing her daughter Eva to leave her, trying to convey enough of her own fears to justify the separation while reassuring her child that they will be happily together again "soon". Designer Janie Howland's attic serves nicely as an abstract playing space, and director Adam Zalher moves his actors though it in ways that endow the details of props and furniture with literal or symbolic existence, or cause them to fade from view, as is appropriate. Emily Dunn's costumes locate us in time and place, Haddon Kime's music and Rick Lombardo's sound design cue in our ears, and John Malinowski's lights guide our glance and mold our mood. This is a beautifully realized production, sketching in the circumstances with deft strokes and opening up glimpses of an abyss of suffering and guilt hidden beneath stiff upper lips and surface conformities. I must admit, however, that successful abstraction like this makes me yearn for more than glimpses: I long for for a poetry of words as well of images, one that allows the freedom and focus of soliloquy. I understand from what Samuels has decided to show that there are good reasons for important matters to go unspoken, and that the characters must restrain themselves when together, hiding emotions that might upset or offend or even terrify those who depend upon them, or upon whom they depend. They can't give away their secrets causally, or risk pushing away what they need to survive. But they needn't hide from the audience, from me-- and in this freely ranging dramatic form there is no forth wall of realism keep us apart. Why can't these women speak directly, and tell me exactly what they are feeling? Let me in on the fantasies, or the logic-- or the rationalizations-- that led them to the radical choices they have made?
High school sophomore Emily Dubner plays the child Eva from age nine to age seventeen, by which time the girl has suppressed her origins and adopted an English identity as "Evelyn". Dubner is required to project the character's particular fears and hopes and bewilderment and accommodation along with the growth and change and assumption of a trial identity that any girl goes through as she leaves childhood behind, and Dubner must do it for an American audience using dialogue in German, and in a regional English dialect shaded with varying degrees of German accent. The young actress must react to her surroundings with the body and perceptions first of a mere child, and then with those of a young woman. It is a huge technical challenge, and Dubner rises to it beautifully. There are no male family members in Samuels' play, but Russell Berrigan portrays all the male characters dressed in a little brief authority who run the world, the "outside" forces shaping the women's lives: German and British officers and petty officials. Berrigan's characterizations are shaped by the child Eva's point of view, and are neatly drawn cartoons rather than portraits. Nancy E. Carroll as the mature Evelyn is a brittle creature until a chance discovery reveals her secret, and then she breaks down into heart scalding tears. Alice Duffy as Lil, the Manchester housewife who takes the child Eva in, does not attempt a physical representation of the young woman she would have been when Eva came to live with her, but simply sheds the weight of experience that shapes her endearing performance as Faith's grandmother. Duffy is very properly lower middle English, just as she was very properly lower middle midwestern in the Lyric's "Morning's at Seven" earlier this season. What a joy it is to watch this actress at work! Jo Barrick's teen Faith is quite tolerable when with her grandmother Lil, and thoroughly annoying when spatting with her mother, Evelyn. I have never seen Barrick perform before, but judging by the wide range of roles listed in her program bio, I assume that the whining and snipping is the actress' expression of the effect that Evelyn's suppressions of emotion have had upon Faith's personality, and not Barrick's own natural tones. Barrick is so adept at adolescent abrasiveness that I wanted to slap her. Rachel Harker is elegant and noble at first as Helga, Eva's loving mother, frightened but determined to give her daughter the best chance to escape the looming destruction by sending the child out of a darkening Germany. The catch in the actress' voice, the gesture interrupted before it gives too much away, all indicate unspoken depths of love and care. Harker becomes a gaunt and haunting figure when Helga returns after the long war, "come back from the dead" to reclaim the one thing that has survived out of all that once mattered to her. Her survival, her obsessive love, are more terrifying than pitiful.
This production of Kindertransport is an excellent fit between theatre and play. The New Rep's intimate thrust stage brings the actors very close to the audience at the same time as it establishes the space as a theatrical one in which the audience is a a communal presence, not a collection of observers looking at "reality" through a proscenium window. Samuels' script is less immediate than it might be for a Massachusetts audience in that it is veddy English: not about, specifically, "us, back then". This concerned my theatre companions, who were an English couple just barely of an age to have some personal or family recollection of the W.W.II events depicted-- especially the evacuation of English children from the bomb threatened cities to the relative safety of strangers' homes in the countryside. These Brits were impressed by author Samuels' reference to that well intentioned trauma, and wondered whether the play could work as well for Americans who have no experience to compare to it. But in some ways such a distancing may be an advantage when the subject is as fraught as The Holocaust. At New Rep, the action of the play unfolds in the pin drop silence of total attention: attention must be paid. Tears flow, but quietly, and at different points in the action. The New Rep is holding discussions after some performances, and although there were none scheduled after the performance I attended, my companions felt impelled to go from the theatre to the nearest coffee house to discuss the "issues" of the play, immediately. This is a play that invites-- nay, demands-- discussion. I wonder how many of those discussions also referred to the current headlines, and the child survivor torn between two opposing sets of family? How many conversations also expanded into America's role as "Mother of Immigrants", and onto the culture wars and identity politics where we as citizens struggle with much heat and only fitful light to define who "we" are, and what we owe each other? This is an admirable purpose for a play to serve. I only wish that I had attended on a discussion night, and been able to gather the impressions and opinions of my neighbors and fellow citizens as well.
I do have some reservations about Samuels' script itself. She opens the play with Eva's mother reading to her from the child's favorite story book, the horrific late Victorian German version of "The Pied Piper". This is a tale guaranteed to induce guilt and nightmares, but the script implies that it is a story that the child is drawn to because it incorporates fears appropriate to the historical situation. It is so peculiar that it is distracting, as well as disturbing. Some psychologists have made a rather convincing case for such stories being a form of emotional abuse on the part of sadistic parents! The vision of the Hamlin children piped away to the abyss and lost forever as a punishment for greed and ingratitude reappears later in the play, part of the author's thematic structure. The folk tale reinforces the primitive notion that behind every suffering is a causative sin for which the suffering is retributive payment-- even unto the seventh generation. This is the notion that the Book of Job engages, and it feels tacked on rather than fully integrated, here. I also could not accept the the psychology/plotting surrounding Helga's return "from the dead" and her daughter's reaction to it. My instinctive rejection of this part of Samuels' construction as "untrue" then reflected back, casting doubt on earlier details. Still, trying to shoehorn too much complex life on to the stage rather than allowing it to unfold more comfortably in an epic three generation novel is a fault easily excused in an ambitious young writer.