The time is 1939 — and the 1980s. The place: Hamburg, Germany — and Manchester, England. Kindertransport, a harrowing first play by British author Diane Samuels, plays out in parallel as it tackles disturbing issues like dislocation, exile and the guilt of survival. Among its many probing questions, this penetrating drama, which is currently receiving a stellar production at New Jewish Theatre, asks: Who, if anyone, is to be blamed when a child is cast into a maelstrom of terror and confusion? Can the ends justify the means?
In 1939 Eva Schlesinger, a nine-year-old German Jew, is shipped from Hamburg to Manchester for safekeeping. While it is hoped that the move will be temporary, Eva will spend the remainder of her life in England, never completely assimilated, but also no longer German. She will change her name, her religion, her language. We meet Eva as both child and adult, as both daughter and mother. Even as she is being sent away by her own mother, we also see Eva (renamed Evelyn) preparing to help her own daughter leave home.
Although the title refers to a mass movement of thousands of German children in 1938 and '39, the play eschews any sense of the documentary. Statistics are not relevant to understanding Eva's plight — which, alas, is beyond understanding. (Seeing Kindertransport recalled a conversation I once had with a veteran GI who stormed onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. "I'm not interested in the story The Longest Day tells," he said, "or in any of the History Channel documentaries. For me D-Day is the story of what happened six feet to my left, six feet to my right, and six feet in front of me.") In a similar vein, we only know what Eva knows, and that is precious little.
Instead of relying on statistics, author Samuels explains Eva's situation through myth and metaphor. As the legend of the rat-catching Pied Piper of Hamelin plays out, we are reminded that the piper (just one of John Flack's roles, all of which he enacts effectively) chose to wreak vengeance on those who betrayed him by taking "the heart of your happiness away." The innocents of Hamelin traversed a "hollow highway" to nowhere. Eva is left with a hollow soul. When she gets seasick while crossing the English Channel, she cannot vomit. "Nothing will come out of me," she moans. Even before reaching England, her essence has been purged.
The script is so well written, and most of the dialogue so natural, it's hard to believe this is a first play. Samuels manages to personalize huge issues. Then, ten minutes before it's over, the author suddenly introduces a Sophie's Choice-style conundrum that seems totally out of whack with what has gone before. I'm sure Samuels believes her play has built to this surprise. For me it was like going to the racetrack, betting on a horse, cheering it all the way around the course and then watching it pull up lame in the stretch. You don't get angry; you ache with sadness.
But there are no regrets about the production. The invisibly impeccable direction by Doug Finlayson transforms the play into a tapestry that is woven by three remarkable performances from three veteran actresses. Kat Singleton is Eva as the adult Evelyn, a woman whose unreconciled past is made manifest by an almost eerie calm. Margeau Baue Steinau is the German mother who must send her uncomprehending daughter away. There is enormous empathy for a woman who knows so much more than she is able to share. Kari Ely is the adoptive mother in England, whose life is also about to be irrevocably changed.
Much of the evening's burden rests with Meg Rodd, who plays Eva at ages nine and fifteen. She too gives a fervent portrayal. (Watch how she tries to bury her head into her shoulders when being interrogated by a German guard.) As Evelyn's probing daughter, Emily Piro is, alas, asked to howl a lot, which is always discomforting in this tiny playing space. I fear the role is written that way, which is unnecessary.
But for most of its revelatory journey, this is compelling theater, arrestingly staged. New Jewish gets better and better as it continues to push the boundaries of expertise.