note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Beverly Creasey
When the Nazis started detaining citizens, Jewish children were sent by their parents to safe countries like England, Belgium or the Netherlands. You may remember that English children too were evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. But what was intended for the "good" of the children may have left them with terrible psychological damage. This is the premise of Diane Samuels' powerful play "Kindertransport" currently at the New Repertory Theatre.
"Kindertransport" is a compelling story about war and its smallest casualties. Samuels sets the play during the Holocaust so that the individual story of one child becomes the story of every child.
Writers who set their stories against the background of the Holocaust face the daunting challenge of presenting the horror, dramatically, strongly enough for us to experience, in some visceral way, how terrible it was without our having lived it. Many writers have failed, but Samuels delivers the terror: through the person of a mother of a transported child who survived the camps but who "hates her own surviving"...and in the character of the little girl who feels that part of her died when she was torn from her family.
In addition to the emotional impact of a family torn apart, "Kindertransport" is a clever play which threads the Pied Piper legend throughout the story as a frightening metaphor for the sudden removal of thousands of young German Jewish children. Samuels has the little girl read from the German text of The Pied Piper of Hamlin just before she, like the children of Hamlin, is whisked away. "I will take the heart of your happiness away," says the Piper. And that quote in this context makes our blood run cold. As does the birth-mother's excruciating conclusion that "it is cruel to come back from the dead."
Director Adam Zahler gets some exceptional performances from his cast, especially from young Emily Dubner as Eva, the child sent to a country where she doesn't speak the language and to a family who doesn't understand or honor Jewish customs. Dubner's performance is lit from within. We see her small agony and her determination to adapt --- sowing the seeds of her torment as an adult. And Dubner's German is perfect.
Rachel Harker gives a searing performance as the little girl's heartbroken mother. Alice Duffy infuses the character of the adoptive mother with a genuine warmth and hearty Englishness. Nancy Carroll makes the adult Eva a wounded creature carrying the scars of the child in her heart. Jo Barrick gives a spirited performance as the grown woman's confused and angry daughter. Russell Berrigan portrays all the male characters who figure briefly in their lives.
Zahler creates such a strong bond among grandmother, mother and granddaughter that their emotional wounds move beyond soap opera to make fascinating, well constructed drama: the drama of life, so poignant and moving in the New Rep's loving production.