By DELIA O'HARA
The Chicago Children's Theatre is covering a wide range of topics and tones with the plays it is mounting for children, as director Sean Graney can tell you. Last season, Graney directed "Honus & Me," a fantasy about a boy who finds the most valuable baseball card in the world, and about the long-gone era it helps him enter. "That was a summer play about baseball, charming and delightful," Graney said.
Now, he is bringing "Hana's Suitcase" to the Storefront Theater of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Adapted by Emil Sher from Karen Levine's best-selling book, "Hana's Suitcase" tells the story of Tokyo schoolchildren who, with their teacher, uncover the story of Hana Brady, a Czech Jew who disappeared into the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz at 14, leaving only her suitcase, which winds up in Tokyo.
"Hana's Suitcase" is a detective story, a coming-of-age story and a compelling historical saga. Its heroes are Akira and Maiko, two Japanese students who resolve to follow Hana's story wherever it takes them; their intrepid teacher, Fumiko Ishioka, and the Brady family, including Hana and her brother, George, who play major roles in the second act, making the most of their lives even as they deteriorate into loss and oblivion.
"The play is so intense, it could easily slip into despair," Graney says. "Instead, you get this desire to connect and understand [from the Japanese students]. The way the play deals with [the story], the idea of hope shines through." The Japanese children provide a buffer between the audience and the horrific experiences of Hana and George in this fact-based story. Akira and Maiko in a very real sense bring the Bradys alive -- Hana appears as soon as they open her suitcase -- and they channel the feelings of the audience, says Stephanie Kim, who portrayed the student Maiko in the premiere of "Hana's Suitcase" in St. Louis, and will play her again in Chicago.
"The key is that the story is being told through the revelations of these Japanese children," Kim says. "Live theater makes the experience so real that you forget you're watching someone who is not going to make it. In some very odd way, [the theater experience] brings a feeling of humanity, of how frail humans really are."
"Hana's Suitcase" is recommended for children age 10 and up, but 12 and up is probably a more solid range, given the material. With serious stories like "Hana's Suitcase" and Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine" mixed in with romps like "Go Dog Go," families have to look at every CCT production individually. Graney thinks that's a good thing. Whether it's a movie, book, video game or play, parents need to be thoughtful about "what they're bringing their kids to, what questions may be raised by the content, whether it's appropriate for your child," Graney says. "We rely too much on society to tell us what's OK."
But "Hana's Suitcase" is an important play for children who can handle it, according to Graney. "These were normal people, living their lives, and [the Holocaust] just sort of happened to them," he says. "It could in theory happen again. We have to learn how it happened and have a connection to as many people as we can so ... we won't allow anything like this to happen again."
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