Director Kat Singleton has a dream cast for “Hannah Senesh”: Shanara Gabrielle. Though Jimmy Betts makes a very brief appearance as a guard in this 85-minute drama, the stage belongs to Gabrielle throughout, and within a very few moment, so does the audience. She looks us directly in the eye, and takes us on her journey from idealistic 13-year-old who has decided to keep a diary to 23-year-old martyr to Adolf Hitler’s war on the Jewish people.
The story is framed by Hannah’s mother, Catherine, telling about her daughter’s life and death from her perspective. Her speech is heavily accented, but her tone is firm and her demeanor dignified. Gabrielle uses no makeup to play the older woman, but she is believable through her posture and movements. She is aided by glasses and the clothing a matron would wear in the 1940s, but the illusion is remarkable. The family is Hungarian, and the Germans left Hungary alone until 1944, so their lives were more or less normal during most of World War II, but by this time, Hannah was long gone.
After the “mother” exits, Gabrielle makes a quick change to plaid skirt, white blouse and sweater vest to take us back to 1934. Her hair is in braids, and she fairly bubbles with youth and vigor. She speaks lovingly of her late father, a writer whose books she cherishes. She lives with her mother and brother and is eager, as all young teens are, to grow up and begin her life. Her mother hopes she’ll have a conventional one, but that is not for the exuberant young woman who talks about boys and parties, but also her studies, family, and as time goes on, the war. By 17, she has proclaimed herself a “Zionist” and two years later, about a month after Germany has invaded Poland, she leaves for Palestine to study agriculture and contribute to building a homeland for the Jews.
All the while, she keeps us apprised of the year and her location by reciting dates of her diary entries and sharing her thoughts and fears. At one point, she decides that her generation is comparable to a plant’s root cells, which breed and grow the plant, but die in the process so the plant will live. What if the young people like her are destined to build the Jewish nation but have to sacrifice their lives to do so? She also begins to wonder whether she can care about an individual or if her strongest feelings are for a group. On her 22nd birthday, she looks at a photo of herself (the real people are used in the pictures, but it isn’t much of a distraction) and muses that no one would guess she’d never been kissed.
After she completes her two-year course in Nahalal, Palestine, she applies to become a member at Kibbutz Sedot Yam in late 1941. However, she is bored with her routine life, and seeks to become a member of a Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization) unit that will send paratroopers behind the lines to pose as British soldiers and go into occupied central Europe to warn Jewish citizens of imminent danger. Her goal is to get back to Hungary to help her own people, especially her mother, but by the time she parachutes into Yugoslavia and prepares to cross the border into Hungary, Germany has already invaded her homeland. Hannah is arrested soon after entering Hungary and is sent to a military prison in Budapest. Her mother is arrested and brought to the prison camp, and even though her captors threaten to torture Catherine, Hannah won’t tell the truth about her mission. In a few months, she is turned over to Hungarian authorities and is executed for treason. She is 23 years old.
These facts are merely a summary of Hannah’s life events. What we learn about her can only be experienced through Gabrielle’s magical performance. She is an amazingly physical actor. She is able to go through an entire set of calisthenics representing her army training while continuing to narrate her story. She is barely out of breath. Between her energy and Singleton’s pacing, the electricity in the room is palpable. She is also much more than an idealistic young woman who becomes a political activist. She is a poet as well, and we see much of her simple but touching poetry on a projection screen while Gabrielle sings the lyrics in an achingly lovely soprano. The songs never seem artificial; rather, they are just another dimension to what ends up being an inner monologue which the audience just happens to hear.
The set by Peter and Margery Spack is comprised of a desk, rug and drapes on one side and tall marsh grasses along a long ramp on the other. A round platform is center stage and diaphanous drapes hang high above supplementing the screen that projects clouds and shows actions like parachute jumping mimicked by the actor before us in one of the most interesting pieces of theatrical mime I’ve seen. Lighting (Seth Jackson) and sound design (Zoe Sullivan) could not be better. Jenny Smith gets credit for properties design, and Hannah has a large square of blue and white cloth (the colors of the Zionist movement later adopted for the Israeli flag) used for so many things that it’s almost a character in itself. Its most interesting “role” is as her parachute, but it is also the ground she kisses when she arrives in Palestine and a sheet she’s washing as part of her chores. By the end it has become the symbol of Hannah Senesh’s short but meaningful life and is borne away by her grieving mother. Costumes by Michele Friedman Siler for both characters are appropriate, and for Hannah, necessarily versatile. Joanna Battles (dialect coach) and Noemi Neidorff as consultant and language coach’s careful work is reflected in Catherine Senesh’s broken English.
It is impossible to ignore comparisons to Anne Frank—the diary, of course, but also their fundamental beliefs in the power of good. Look back at the epigraph at the top of this review, for example. But that doesn’t weaken David Schecter’s script (in collaboration with Lori Wilner), which is subtitled “a play with music.” I don’t think there was all that much music, but what there is did enhance the words by giving them a higher level of resonance. Last season, NJT gave us “Conviction,” a one-actor play that I thought was as good as any of that genre I’d seen. With “Hannah Senesh,” the company has surpassed even that level of excellence in this production because of a perfect performance guided by a sensitive and meticulous director.