How do you get a handle on incomprehensible horror? In the years immediately after World War II, as the world strove to cope with the enormity of what had occurred in the gas chambers of Eastern Europe, the guileless, smiling face of Anne Frank, dead at age fifteen, became an emblem for understanding. For more than half a century in print, onstage and onscreen Anne's story has helped to humanize the stunning statistics.
In 2002, 50 years after Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in America, another book and another sweet face began to touch a new generation of juvenile readers. Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine is at heart an emotional detective story that chronicles how in 2000 the determined sleuthing of Fumiko Ishioka, the vivacious director of the Tokyo Holocaust Center (enacted here with unadorned sincerity by Haruna Tsuchiya) uncovered the life and times of Hana Brady (Leah Schumacher), an anonymous name on a dilapidated valise from Auschwitz. Canadian author Emil Sher has adapted Hana's Suitcase to the stage. The play debuted last March in Toronto. Now it is receiving its U.S. premiere as a co-venture of the Edison Theatre and Metro Theater Company. This is a big deal for St. Louis, and the exquisite production merits the widespread support it is receiving.
"This is a story about children, for children," the playbill wisely advises. Though the events dramatized here are of profound importance, the script (like the book) is geared to young viewers. There are frequent references, for instance not to the 6 million people who died in the Holocaust but rather to the 1.5 million children who were liquidated.
But if the direct simplicity of lines like "Think of all the other children whose names we will never know" and "They were children just like you" are targeted at young minds, the production itself is not. Director Carol North is determined to encase these simplicities in an experience that can be shared by audiences of all ages. So there is the innovative use of flute (Jennifer Adams) and percussion (Lance Garger) to cleanse our minds and remove us to another universe, and there is the theatricality of masked figures whose anonymity speaks to the countless who perished.
The set design by Dunsi Dai enhances the story's emotional power. Six towers filled with lists of names (presumably of other Auschwitz victims) frame the stage, which is mostly taken up by an asymmetrical six-sided plinth. No two sides are the same height or length, suggesting a world out of alignment. On top of the plinth sits a second stage, a perfect circle that allows listeners from today to enter into the center of Hana's story.
One caveat: To read Hana's Suitcase is not only to be affected by the passion of Fumiko Ishioka, but also to be humbled by the actions of George Brady, Hana's surviving elder brother, whose past was restored to life 45 years after his world had ended. It took unimagined courage for him to reopen those old wounds. Hana was a victim, but George is a genuine hero. Onstage, alas, the adult George is little more than a figurehead; Sher's script is unwilling to probe beyond the exposition of Hana's fateful journey. Why not? Back to the playbill: "This is a story about children...."
Late in the evening, when Hana lit a birthday candle, I was reminded of a speech from William Hanley's little-remembered 1964 drama Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. A former railroad engineer on the Auschwitz line who delivered countless Jews to their deaths says, "Every year a bunch of Jewish people get together and light a fat candle for the 6 million Jews the Nazis killed. A candle. For 6 million people you light the sun, maybe. But a candle?" Hana's Suitcase is only a candle, but it burns brightly.