Wednesday, November 30, 2022

More than a history lesson: UNCW’s “Kindertransport” story of perseverance continues

Lil Miller (Joan Reilly) and Eva Schlesinger (Eve Wengel) scour a newspaper for jobs in UNCW’s production of “Kindertransport.” (PCD/ Brenna Flanagan).

WILMINGTON — The show must go on.

UNCW’s Department of Theatre opened its first show of the season, “Kindertransport,”  Thursday night as scheduled. But that’s as far as it made it into its eight-show run before disruption due to Hurricane Ian. While Friday night’s performance was canceled, the troupe will pick up where they left off Saturday evening.

Adapting to storms and even a worldwide pandemic has been a regular occurrence at UNCW over the last four years. Hurricane Florence delayed performances in the fall of 2018 and widespread Covid-19 infections canceled another show in spring 2020. Throughout the 2021 school year, performances were encumbered by masks and face shields, along with choosing scripts that didn’t require lots of close contact. 

It seems apropos for the department to tackle a play centered on resiliency at the start of a new year at UNCW.

“Kindertransport” follows the life of a Jewish-German girl, Eva Schlesinger, who is shipped to Great Britain by her parents to escape increasing horrors of the Nazi regime. The play oscillates back and forth between wartime and decades later, when Eva is an adult. The play details Eva’s childhood adjustments to British life with her caretaker Lil Miller, while a Jewish storybook character, the Ratcatcher, takes different forms to terrorize the young girl based on her ethnicity. Over time, Eva’s Jewish-German identity  erodes until she renounces her heritage altogether. The newly-christened Eva, now Evelyn, stashes remnants of her childhood in a trunk in Lil’s attic, where her daughter Faith discovers the truth years later.

Director and professor Charles Grimes told Port City Daily, as a regular researcher of the Holocaust he has always wanted to lead a production of the play. 

“I think [‘Kindertransport’] talks about remembering,” he said. “The challenge is that we’re going to have to remember all this stuff when [survivors] are all going to be dead in 10 years,” Grimes said.  

Grimes said many of his college actors had little knowledge of the actual Kindertransport, so the rehearsal process was also an immersion into accounts on the mass exodus of Germany’s youth.

Helga Schlesinger (Allison Garret) a mother making an impossible choice in “Kindertransport.” (PCD/ Brenna Flanagan).

The play moves from past to present — British-transplant Eve Wengel, studying abroad in her final year at Rose Bruford in the U.K., plays young Eva as she integrates into British culture while junior RaeLynn Clark portrays the adult Eva, who changes her name to Evelyn and eventually has a daughter herself, from which she hides the truth of her childhood. 

“We see her at [ages] 9, 10, 15 and 17, and see her go through this massive change of identity, which then continues through into the depiction of Evelyn, who is the same character fundamentally, but we see her played from two different actresses to sort of separate that younger naïveté, innocence, and that older character.” 

Although the script, authored by British playwright Diane Samuels, is fictitious, it represents many stories of the German “kinder” (children). The Kindertransport program began in late 1938 and continued until the outbreak of war on Sept. 1, 1939. In all, just under 10,000 young people were granted refuge in Britain. Most never saw their parents again.

Though the passage to the U.K. spared them from Nazi concentration camps, the children were placed into homes and communities with varying degrees of kindness, respect and regard for cultural traditions.

“Being face to face with these characters, and living it as if it’s our own truth, I think is so drastically different than reading it,” said actor Abigail Hamm, who plays Eva/Evelyn’s daughter Faith.

The play’s characters begin in preparation mode. Eva/Evelyn’s mother, Helga — performed by sophomore Allison Garrett — conceals her emotion from young Eva while imparting life skills and secret stashes of gold jewelry to cross the border with her daughter. 

“I’m so used to working with kids,” Garrett said. “You have to be super nice and super gentle with them, but this is a whole different scenario. This is war time. This is ‘you’re about to leave me forever. I need you to focus. You don’t understand the gravity of the situation. But I can’t sit you down and explain to you everything that’s wrong with the world because you’re 9.’”

Garrett said she approached her characters from the outside in — honing Helga’s physical components before her mental makeup. Her work with with the production’s dialect coach to help her better embody the mother’s stricter demeanor. 

“There’s something about it that just makes you feel, I guess more disciplinary, more like a figure of authority,” she said. 

Lil (Joan Reilly) please with her granddaughter Faith (Abigail Hamm) after Faith makes a discovery about her mother in “Kindertransport.” (PCD/ Brenna Flanagan).

Wengel also noted the challenge of mastering German with the dialect coach. She has to speak in the young Eva’s native tongue, delivering multiple passages in the language. 

“As an actor, how do I speak in a different language but then still connect to what I’m saying?” Wengel rhetorically asked about her craft. “I have three different lines all in my head. I’ve got the English translation, the German and then, also, what emotions are bubbling around.”

In the story, Eva arrives in England to be taken in by Lil Miller, a patient and sturdy caretaker played by Joan Reilly. Reilly describes her character as a “strong woman” who also “knows her mind.”

“She’s a bit of a pain in the ass, especially to her daughter,” Reilly said. “So it was hard for me at first. I just had to draw from somewhere else — another side that doesn’t usually surface.”

Lil moves between decades, sometimes changing time periods in the same scene. In the play’s present, Lil acts as mediator to the modern mother-daughter duo, Evelyn and her daughter Faith, played by Hamm. 

Faith and Evelyn gather plates and silverware from Lil’s attic ahead of the teen’s college move. Faith discovers a trunk of her mother’s childhood mementos — evidence of her Jewish and German heritage. 

“Faith is a really interesting character just because she goes through this whole journey of understanding that her family is completely desensitized to something that she’s not even aware of,” Hamm said.

The mother and daughter have differing views on how Eva/Evelyn should preserve the remnants from her past. One advocates for the right to choose what people remember about them, and the other stresses the importance of passing down first-person accounts of family ancestry — and world history — to posterity. 

The playwright seems to want to persuade audiences to believe the latter. Faith’s dialogue encourages argues non one should ever attempt to forget their where they came from and their part in history. 

The Ratcatcher as a train station employee in “Kindertransport.” (PCD/ Brenna Flanagan).

Adding a surreal element to the play, senior Zach Harris plays a Jewish storybook character called the “Ratcatcher” who “steals the heart of your happiness.” He takes many forms — a Nazi solider, British case manager, train station employee — and reveals the callousness, anti-semitism and xenophobia of ordinary people when societies across the world allow fascism and white supremacy to flourish.

Wengel describes seeing the play is as holding space for a story that may not match yours, but can teach you nonetheless. 

“I think that it’s really important for them to like to sit and be respectful of this, of somebody else’s heritage,” Wengel said. “But I think it also brings up so many questions that may be relevant to your own life.”

The moments between Harris and Wengel are the closest parallels to modern ideologies, something Grimes wanted to capitalize on to extend beyond the play’s history lesson.

“The play reminds me of all this stuff going on today: the way people adjust themselves to fascism, the people that are just totally OK with it when it benefits them,” he said. 

Grimes also noted a broader concept for audiences to think about on the drive home: “Lives can be very contingent and fragile and very dependent on outside forces. [Your life’s trajectory] is up to you to a certain extent and then every once in a while it’s not. So that’s what I think is going to be interesting for people.” 

“Kindertransport” runs at UNCW’s Mainstage Theatre in the Cultural Arts Building on Oct. 1-2 and Oct. 6-9. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances begin at 8 p.m, Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $14 for the general public and can be purchased online or at the box office one-hour before the performance. 


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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