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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Kindertransport at JRT of WNY


Review by ANTHONY CHASE



Two women in an attic. One with a cardboard box
Robyn Baun as Faith and Wendy Hall as Evelyn in "Kindertransport" at JRT

 

Set in the attic of a house in Manchester, England, sometime in the 1980s, Diane Samuels’s play, Kindertransport, follows the threads of three strained mother-daughter relationships. We quickly realize that as the repository of the carefully boxed and compartmentalized life of the central character, this attic is haunted, at least metaphorically.

 

Before and during the time she became daughter to Lil and mother to Faith, Evelyn accumulated some revealing and emotionally charged artifacts.  She has hidden these away, carefully.

 

As the play begins, we observe the tension between Evelyn and Faith, as mother tries to give daughter some of her belongings so that she can move out and set up housekeeping on her own.  Dishes, a lamp, glassware.  How can a glass that has been carefully stashed away for safekeeping be chipped, she wonders.  Faith wants nothing.  Not until she stumbles upon what she shouldn’t, and the game is afoot. 

 

Now we switch to another time, another place, and another mother-daughter relationship.  We are in Hamburg, Germany, 1938, just months before the start of World War II.  Helga packs a suitcase for her daughter, Eva, preparing to send the nine-year-old to England alone. Mother is teaching daughter to thread a needle and to sew a button on her coat by herself. She will need to be self-sufficient.  The Kinderstransport was an effort to save thousands of children, mostly Jewish, from the Nazis.  Parents placed children into the arms of strangers, often never to see them again.  Eva is one of these children.  Helga is one of these parents.

 

Helga tells Eva that she will need to be a good girl.  That she should try to find other Jews in England. She also tells her that the cobbler has hidden a few keepsakes for her in the heels of her shoes.

 

From this set-up it is obvious that the play deals with gravely serious topics and with a profoundly important moment in the history of inhumanity. In every play, of course, the past has an impact on the present.  This particular setting and circumstance, however, seems to heighten the stakes. 

 

The Jewish Repertory Theatre of WNY has delivered a handsome and workmanlike production, directed by Saul Elkin, with a cast of strong actors.  The set by David Dwyer, a train-like attic that serves as many locations, is excellent. The sound design by Tom Makar is superior.  Lighting by Brian Cavanagh is expressive and wonderfully dramatic, and serves to advance and amplify the story.

 

I do note that in honoring the gravitas and serious import of the story, the production ignores the nuance and ambiguity embedded in the text. The overall gesture of the evening is more ennobling than illuminating, more emblematic than personal.  

 

The circumstances they have been dealt render every character in the play incapable of making good decisions.  This creates some intentionally wince-able moments and some unlikely comic moments. Playwright Samuel’s suggests that the dynamics between mothers and daughters do not change appreciably with historical circumstances.  She emphasizes that the problems of our pasts compound and expand if they are not reconciled, no matter how fully we think we have buried them.

 

We recoil as Lil, with the best of intentions, serves her Jewish foster daughter pork and carts her off to church, despite the girl’s clearly stated misgivings.  We shudder as Evelyn and Lil sit shredding the only record of a colossal family sacrifice.  The production successfully and effectively expresses the grand gestures. 

 

I question, however, the way that human beings react when their most sensitive secrets are in danger of exposure.  In soap operas, they raise their voices to exhilarating melodramatic heights and gesture wildly.  Audiences love that kind of thing. That is the track taken here too.  A similar strategy was recently deployed in a local production of an Arthur Miller play.  By contrast, I have observed that in real life that the moment is more often met with a quiet digging in, a hardening motivated by fear and expressed in strategic deflections.  Sometimes people respond to exposure, to defeat, to unfair absurdity with humor.  These elements permeate the Kindertransport script, but the production, instead, veers in the direction of thrilling and ennobling histrionics. It’s exciting in the moment, but a more measured and thoughtful approach might have had a more powerful payoff. 

 

Calibration and tone aside, everyone in the production is very good. 

 

Robyn Baun brings earnest sincerity to Faith, the last daughter in the line whose questions and insights hold the promise of finally brining this family to a place of harmony with its past and its future. 

 

Charmagne Chi gives a haunting performance as Helga, the mother who sacrifices everything to protect her child.  Her first scene, in which she packs her daughter’s suitcase, is especially powerful and compelling.

 

Wendy Hall brings great clarity and intention to the role of Evelyn, a hard and long-suffering woman.

 

Ellen Horst is beautifully cast as benevolent but not benign Lil.  The well-meaning cluelessness of this character drives the play forward with frustrating power.  Horst handles this very effectively.

 

Renee Landrigan plays the most complex of the characters, traveling from childhood to adolescence and delivering painful choices with conviction. She does this expertly, giving a very satisfying performance.  

 

Dave Wysocki is excellent as a number of minor evil characters. His most immediate reviews were delivered by a service dog in the audience, who delivered a barking alarm when Wysocki appeared as the evil rat-catcher.  They say dogs are excellent judges of character. Wysocki was quite convincing as a sadistic Nazi.

 

The production continues through February 25, 2024.

 

 

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