Shadowy figures linger, and a child is saved and lost, in the evocative 'Kindertransport'
Mustard Seed Theatre opens its season with the acclaimed story detailing the lasting effects of the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from internment during the Holocaust. To fully appreciate Kindertransport, a deeply personal story that walks audiences through the effort made to save Jewish children from Hitler's, it's beneficial understand certain details of this historical event.
In nineteen thirty eight, during the prelude to World War II, there were a series of violent raids against Jews known as "Kristallnacht." Thousands were beaten and killed in the streets, and at least 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. In response to the devastating events and continued persecution and segregation, thousands of Jewish children were sent by their parents to foster homes and hostiles in Britain over the next two years.
The children traveled by themselves and were thrust into a new country, with a foreign language and customs to learn as they waited for their parents to join them. Many of the children were sent to urban areas that were soon under attack. They were once again subject to nightly bombings reminiscent of the events that drove them from their home and parents, or once again sent from their British foster families to country camps and hostiles, their guardians hoping to protect them from further violence. Some of the children's parents survived the war, but many more did not.
Because of the program, many young Jewish lives were saved, and history generally looks favorably on the effort. When considered from the perspective of the young children, however, the optimistic picture is a little less clear. Diane Samuels' moving and effective Kindertransport tells their story through the eyes of nine-year-old Eva Schlesinger.
Initially, Eva is inconsolable and can't understand why her mother and father are sending her away. She arrives in England frightened, nervous, and unable to string together more than a few English words. Though her foster mother Lil Miller is kind and does her best to understand Eva's fears, she remains haunted, desperate to reunite with her parents and to avoid the evil shadow trying to destroy her. Eventually, Eva grows familiar with her new surroundings, her heritage and religious rituals get buried deep in her psyche, and she changes her name to Evelyn.
Hannah Ryan impresses as the young Eva, fully inhabiting her character from age nine through seventeen. She transforms from a bubbly girl to a timid and overwhelmed refugee, and then to a poised and wise young woman. Her performance moved me to tears at times, and I was impressed by the emotional range and control she displayed. Several scenes, including when she first leaves her mother, when Lil tries to send her away from the city during the air raids, and her final scene with her mother, are saturated with heartbreaking vulnerability.
The combination of the sure hand of director Deanna Jent, as well as smart choices by the actress, ensure the full range and complexity of the girl and her experience is clearly, and sympathetically, shown.
Ryan is expertly reflected in Michelle Hand's portrayal of the older Evelyn. Hand smartly pushes each of the character quirks and insecurities shown by Ryan to logical traits and psychological manifestations. Today we would likely refer to this as PTSD. Evelyn had no way of internalizing and resolving her feelings so she repressed them, though they make their presence known through her behavior. Hand is deeply conflicted, and emotionally overwhelmed by her parents' abandonment of her. Without undue angst, she shows us the scars that will not heal.
The two anchor the show with conviction and commitment and are wonderfully supported by the rest of the cast. Kelley Weber is affecting and torn as Eva's German mother, the natural bond between the actresses a benefit to their on-stage relationship. Kirsten DeBroux is moving as the foster mom Lil, warm and tender, she seems to feel Eva's pain deeply, even as she tries to comfort and reassure the child.
Katy Keating is vibrant and filled with questions as Evelyn's headstrong daughter. She's clearly her mother and grandmother's child, but with well-formed opinions and a lingering desire to really connect with her mom. Finally, Brian J. Rolf does a solid job as various minor characters, ensuring he's supporting and moving the story forward. The actors are complemented by Kyra Bishop's gorgeously designed attic set, with flattering and appropriate light, sound, costumes, and props by Michael Sullivan, Zoe Sullivan, Jane Sullivan, and Meg Brinkley. Attention to period detail was evident in the costuming and props in particular.
Kindertransport is not a play without hope, but it is a play in which every hope, every successful move forward, comes at a painful price. Mustard Seed Theatre's production, running through September 4, 2016, features an outstanding cast and thoughtful, deeply provocative direction. The themes resonate in a time when so many racial, religious, and ethnic boundaries threaten to forever divide us, ensuring this performance and subject will likely to tug at your heartstrings and linger with you well after the curtain.