[MetroActive Stage]

[ Stage Index | Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

Future Past

[whitespace] Daria Jolan George Sakkestad

Transporting Tale: Diane Samuels' 'Kindertransport' tells the story of a young woman (Daria Jolan as a young Eva) who escapes Nazi terror (Thomas Burks as the officer) and then relives the harrowing tale when her family learns of her secret past.

With 'Kindertransport,' theater company Friends of Gus shows that conflicts from WWII still persist

By Rob Pratt

LITTLE DID Albert Einstein know that his special theory of relativity would have implications beyond natural science. In the social realm, as in the quantum realm, the postmodern world has learned that what happens depends on where you're standing.

It works for the past, too. The recent spate of interest in World War II, from films glorifying the foot soldiers who fought it to critical new biographies of the leaders who gave the marching orders, has launched a new movement to settle accounts of the seminal event of the century--both fiscal accounts and more personal accounts of the war's enduring legacy. And in reconciling the past with the present, a viewpoint 60 years after the outbreak of hostilities has brought into focus a group of people whose devastating story hasn't yet been told.

Like millions during the war, they also got uprooted from their lives and boarded trains for an uncertain future. But their trains headed for the English Channel instead of the camps of Central and Eastern Europe--and they had a future. They made it to Britain before the war, survived the Holocaust even as 90 percent of their families did not and spent a lifetime dealing with the consequences. Until recently, however, they dealt with it quietly, secretly, often without letting their new families know of their terrible past.

Theirs is a story of World War II clouded with survivors' guilt and obscured by the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust. They are some 10,000 who escaped the Final Solution but who lived with devastated families and deep personal sacrifices in the aftermath. As with the American movement for reparations for Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps, the dark secret of the long-lasting repercussions of their wartime trials has come to light relatively recently.

Marcia Taylor

On Sept. 17 at the Actors' Theatre, Friends of Gus brings to Santa Cruz a production of a brilliant British play that takes on this little-told story of World War II. Directed by Marcia Taylor and featuring a cast of the community's finest women actors, Diane Samuels' Kindertransport is a searching psychosocial examination of the persistence of the past. (In movie theaters this fall, documentary filmmaker Melissa Hacker also tells her family's World War II tale in My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports, a feature-length documentary that earned critical accolades at this year's Sundance Film Festival.)

Kindertransport is an emotionally powerful story of a woman who as a child escaped the Holocaust. During the time between Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938--the "night of the broken glass" when Nazi persecution of Jews started in earnest--and the Sept. 3, 1939, German invasion of Poland that started World War II, some 10,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17 left their native Germany to settle with foster families and in orphanages and group homes in Britain. The Kindertransport started as an initiative put before the House of Commons, which agreed to take the mostly Jewish refugee children (a small percentage were also from families persecuted for political reasons) if their parents posted a bond to the British government.

Samuels opens Kindertransport with two points in history overlapping: a young German girl in 1939 packing for the train trip that would take her to Britain and the girl's daughter 50 years later rummaging through her mother's attic and finding relics of the Kindertransport and a part of her mother's life she never knew.

"I think Evelyn is the catalyzer--it's her past," Taylor says of the story's focal character, played in the Friends of Gus production both by Susan Forrest and by 16-year-old Daria Jolan. "She's at a--I'm going to do clichés as a way of getting at things--she's at a crossroads. She's at a point where she can't go back and she can't go forward. So she must deal with this nexus where lines of the past and the present and the possible future intersect and are tangled. They're catalyzed by the departure or the nondeparture of her daughter and the discovery of the box filled with her until-now-secret past."

But it's more than a German Jewish version of The Joy Luck Club. Kindertransport deals with some of the big secrets of the 20th century--that war may devastate even those who entirely escape its physical consequences, that a totalitarian regime can dominate its citizens outside national borders and decades later, that human consciousness doesn't move linearly forward in time but sometimes slips backward, that the individual and collective psyche sometimes don't understand some of the secrets they hold.

For Taylor, a longtime theater instructor at Cabrillo College and UC-Santa Cruz (also a Shakespeare Santa Cruz director during the '80s), Kindertransport hits home. Like the daughter Faith in the play, Taylor lives with her mother and deals with family issues every day.

"That's my experience with my mother--and it doesn't end," Taylor says. "I'm 60 and she's 86, and it's the same root stuff coming up and coming up again. You say things [like some of the cruel exchanges in the play], and it's really the face of love. Not Hallmark and doggy love, though."

As in life, Kindertransport doesn't end on a resolute note. It leaves a haunting impression that three generations of women will carry the trauma of the Kindertransport to their graves. It's certainly not a "Hallmark and doggy" conclusion.

Friends and Family: Friends of Gus actors Suzanne Forrest, Susan Shragg, Katryn Kinser and Jean Weisz play mothers and daughters trying to make sense out of their lives.

DIANE SAMUELS STARTED writing plays for children's theater, which, she says, was a natural career change for a longtime grade school teacher. Though now she focuses on adult drama for radio and stage, she still speaks teacher-clear, in a middle-class accent both friendly and politely reserved.

By telephone from her native London, Samuels tells me that she's working on staging a new play, Dr. Y, a piece not meant for theaters but for performance in hospitals and medical centers. It's about genetic testing, she explains, and it revolves around the emotional crises pregnant women face when they learn they're carrying a child prone to certain cancers.

Like Kindertransport, Dr. Y takes on family inheritance, both the tangible and the emotional legacies between parents and children--or, more precisely, between mothers and daughters. And it's about secrets, the dark side of the human condition.

"Do you have any big secrets?" I ask.

"I think everybody does," she says quickly. "And I think nearly all my writing deals with that."

Samuels explains that her start on Kindertransport came with the 50th anniversary of the pre-World War II migration of German Jewish children to Britain. In 1989, many people who had made the journey and remained silent about it all their lives started to identify themselves, finally facing an event that represented a watershed moment, a time when many of them turned their backs on family, religion and country for a chance to live. It was as if a dark national secret had come to light, she adds.

"I have a friend whose father was one of the kinder," Samuels says. "And the only way she found out about it was when her mother told her. Her father never spoke of it. At the 50th anniversary, it was just starting to come out, the kinder were just starting to identify themselves, and it really galvanized them. Organizations of kinder started to meet."

All of that for an American, I tell her, sounds a lot like the experience of issei, or first-generation Japanese-Americans interned in camps because of U.S. wartime paranoia. It's a parallel she hadn't considered--but one that might explain the popularity of Kindertransport in America. (An Internet search turns up dozens of U.S. productions of the play during past seasons and planned for the new season at university, community and professional theater companies.)

Marcia Taylor

Taylor and actor Jean Weisz (who plays Lil in Kindertransport) quickly noted the parallels when they started working on the play. Even more than that, however, they started to see that the play deals with larger issues like the persistence of history. Though Kindertransport premiered in London six years ago and first opened in America the following season, the idea of World War II affecting the present is still current--Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan about D-Day and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line about Guadalcanal have just hit the shelves at video stores, after all.

"I wanted to do the play for a number of things," Weisz explains. "First, it has great women's roles--but also simply because I had grown up during World War II and had a huge family of Jewish in-laws, and I had never heard of the Kindertransport. I thought I was a fairly knowledgeable person, and I'm a World War II buff. I thought if I haven't heard of it that a lot of people haven't heard of it."

Friends of Gus' interest in doing Kindertransport started with Weisz browsing a bookstore clearance sale. She came across a published version of the play (Penguin, 1995), read it at home and immediately started lobbying to mount a production. Soon it turned into something of an obsession, and she traveled the state to see productions in San Francisco and Santa Monica.

"It was done in an old building--I think it used to be a school," Weisz says of the San Francisco show. "They didn't have a real theater, so the lights went on and off and that was all. It was very simple but it was very moving.

"Then I saw a much more sophisticated version in Santa Monica, which was very good but less moving--maybe because I was listening more critically," she continues. "And that was how I knew there was another version--we have her revised script. I had already started learning my lines, and I heard them saying different things, so we got in touch with her."

The play, though, is a tough one to stage. Samuels' script provides a bare minimum of stage direction, relying instead on powerful language to deliver an emotional wallop.

"Reading it you think, 'Oh well, why stage it--just put actors on stools,'" Taylor explains of her initial reaction. "But that's not the case at all--and that's the danger. It is a play."

Other dangers in misreading it lie in mistaking the tone. Turning on a turbulent moment in a mother-daughter relationship, the play might lead a theater company to stage Kindertransport as a maudlin, feel-good family piece, Taylor says.

"I was frightened when I first read the play that it could become a sentimental document--how they struggle to find each other and struggle with issues of family independence. There was a danger...that it could become a real weeper--but God it's not. They're so wonderfully rough with each other--cruel with each other. The terror of issues of autonomy, love and dependence gives rise to absolutely understandable conflict."

And it's a conflict that will likely endure into the next century as the world continues to grapple with the legacy of World War II. Think of it: It is World War II that inspired Kurt Vonnegut to write in Slaughterhouse Five, "Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time"--perhaps the birth wail of the postmodern age, a time when the past has broken from its moorings in history. Then again, 60 years in the geologic scheme of things is really no time at all, and we may find however many thousands of years in the future that the world has continued fighting World War II well into the third millennium.

The Friends of Gus production of Diane Samuels' Kindertransport opens Sept. 17 and runs at the Actors' Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz, 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 3pm Sundays through Oct. 10; $12 general/$10 seniors and students (457.8503). For a guide to full stage productions in Santa Cruz, go online to www.metcruz.com.

[ Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the September 8-15, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.