As Hana's Suitcase neared the end of its rehearsals, across town at New Jewish Theatre David Hare's Via Dolorosa was just beginning its journey of discovery. The two plays take varying approaches to their material: With a cast of ten, Hana cuts a wide swath that spans six decades and two continents as it unravels the fate of a Holocaust victim; Via Dolorosa is a one-man show, a first-person account of Hare's sojourn to Israel and the Palestinian territories a decade ago. But it seemed worthwhile to eavesdrop as Hana director Carol North and Via director Doug Finlayson discussed their shared challenges:
Doug Finlayson: David Hare not only wrote this script, but he appeared in it in London and New York. He says, "I went and did this thing. Now I'm going to tell you about it." What we're wrestling with Jerry Vogel is playing Hare's role is the notion that we're doing a play, and the character's name is David Hare. The kinds of considerations I might feel early on when preparing to rehearse a more conventional script "you sit at the desk here, turn on a light there" aren't on my mind at all. We can deal with those matters in a day. But we need to know why this character is doing this.
Carol North: It's the burden of dealing with people who are still alive, who are still stakeholders in the project. For you, it is David Hare's work. For us, the anticipation of George Brady and Fumiko Ishioka [two pivotal characters in Hana's Suitcase] being here for opening night is wonderful. They're our honored guests. On the other hand, there's this awesome concern about portraying someone whose life has been so extraordinary. You have to wrest free of that.
Finlayson: We will not be burdened with Mr. Hare's presence.
North: Congratulations! There's also a burden about handling stories so enormous. Yours is both an ancient and a contemporary story. Ours is a contemporary story that rolls back to the Holocaust and concerns one family's tragedy out of millions of tragedies. For the actors there's been an emotional journey to have to ignore the horrible things that happened and to instead play the moment before the Holocaust occurred. The actors have to make their way through a journey that does not know its destination.
Finlayson: The difficulty with my play is that telling someone what happened is not necessarily very interesting. Audiences like to see a character discover something. I find myself saying to Jerry, "Don't assume you already know that right now."
One common link between our plays is that we share the same designer, Dunsi Dai.
North: Yes, he's wonderful to work with.
Finlayson: Dunsi and I started talking, and we decided that Via Dolorosa is not about religion. It's really about land. Two people want to live in the same place. So Dunsi began to sketch this abstract sculpture of Israel and the Palestinian territory. It will sit in the back of an otherwise realistic set of what might be Hare's study. I like it a lot.
North: Dunsi and I had a fascinating time. He loves to research. His first ideas layered many photographic images, dominated by intersecting train tracks at that horrific entrance to Auschwitz. I admired what he had done. But I thought: I can't find any hope in this. And this play has to move through that darkness into a place of hope. So we went in another direction.
Finlayson: The difference between our two plays, I think, is that not many people would argue with the horror of the substance of Hana's Suitcase. But the current situation that Hare describes is far more volatile. In our play there are no solutions. Hare simply talks to people. For us, I think the key is to stay out of Hare's way. He wrote these lines. Now Jerry and I have to make it interesting so that for 90 minutes the viewer is engaged. It seems to me that what this play is designed to do is to create an ongoing dialogue.
North: I really hope that would be the goal of any production. One of the things that hurts my soul is theater for young people that doesn't invite dialogue because it's all been said. What I crave when I go to the theater, and what I want to provide for anyone of any age who sits in our audience, is something to chew on afterwards. Questions to wrestle and images to explore. That's our mandate, isn't it?
For more information about Hana's Suitcase, see Dennis Brown's review of the play (above); New Jewish Theatre's production of Via Dolorosa opens January 24 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur. Tickets are $20 to $25 ($2 discount for seniors and JCC members). Visit www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283. Look for Dennis Brown's review in our February 1 issue.