There is a secret character ghosting through the background of most scenes in Diane Samuels' Kindertransport, currently in production at Mustard Seed Theatre. The Ratcatcher is a figure in a storybook, and as is true of most fairy tale creatures, what he represents changes with age. As a little girl in Germany, Eva loves everything about the Ratcatcher, the antihero of her favorite story: the black cloud he carries with him, his razor eyes, the numerous stringy rat tails he wears as hair. But for the adult Eva, the Ratcatcher stands in for every possible nightmare scenario.
And it's this unseen, unknowable, but always expected, nightmare that has made adult Eva the woman she is. It takes two actors to chart that transformation: Michelle Hand is the grown-up, who goes by the name of Evelyn; and high schooler Hannah Ryan is the young Eva.
Hand needs no introduction — she's demonstrated the quality of her work time and again on St. Louis stages. But for Ryan this is something of a coming-out party, as she shows all the signs of an accomplished stage actor despite her age. The specter of the Ratcatcher would be neither so dark nor so deep if both women were not so skillful at summoning him with nothing more than a cagey glance over the shoulder or a frantic grasp at a beating heart.
The play is inspired by the actual kinderstransport program initiated by Great Britain after the madness of Kristallnacht. Young Jewish children were shipped to safety in England, where they stayed with host families until things blew over (how times have changed for the refugee children of the world!). Eva is sent by her mother Helga (Kelley Weber, who is also Hannah Ryan's mother in real life) to Manchester where she lives with the gentile Lil (Kirsten De Broux), a plainspoken, working-class woman with a big heart but no time for nonsense or lies.
Lil and Eva's wartime story is intertwined with the story of Evelyn's small-scale war with her adult daughter Faith (Katy Keating), who may or may not be moving to her own apartment at last. When Faith finds a mysterious box of German artifacts in the attic, she questions what she knows about her mother and sets off an unexpected fight between the two of them. These parallel storylines eventually come together to answer all questions — including the identity of the mysterious Ratcatcher.
Deanna Jent directs with her usual aplomb. One of the hallmarks of a Jent production is the exceptional clarity of the characters, and Kindertransport is no exception. Eva arrives with an enthusiasm for life despite its hardships, but as she ages she slowly loses her German accent (which is excellent, by the way) and becomes more pragmatic, a point that's driven home when she asks Lil if she can sell the jewelry her mother gave her. (That she's no longer wearing her Star of David is just as telling.) But it's not England that's changed Eva. She changed herself to fit England.
Hand makes Evelyn's little moments speak volumes. The hurried way she stubs out a cigarette and hides the evidence before allowing Faith to enter a room, the way her hands shake and creep toward her throat when Faith shows her the newly found copy of The Ratcatcher; there are unimagined worlds locked away behind Evelyn's sharp eyes.
De Broux is also excellent as the sensible Lil, who acts as go-between, adviser and peacemaker for much of the play. In a story about how identity can erode and shift over time, she's the only constant. We meet her as a mother and she ends as a mother, even when the people around her drop and adopt new personae.
Helga, the other mother in the play, is also surprisingly, and sadly, constant. Weber does outstanding work in the small but vital role. Young Eva asks if Helga will miss her while she's in England, and Weber's long pause before replying is the real answer. All her fears crash into that silence, and you have the sense that they're still echoing when we see her again years later — that's where the Ratcatcher lives, in that shadowy, uncertain pause. Every mother knows it, and fears it. You cry for Eva, but you weep for Helga.