Children's Theatre handles Holocaust with striking honesty
By Chris Jones
April 15, 2008
Somewhere in the middle of the intensely emotional drama "Hana's Suitcase," a Japanese school teacher encounters an official from a Holocaust museum. "What," the traveling teacher asks, "do you tell the children?"
It's a question likely to be in your mind before taking young ones to the latest production of the Chicago Children's Theatre. Titled "Hana's Suitcase" and based on events first chronicled by Canadian writer Karen Levine and adapted for the stage by Emil Sher, this show begins with the arrival of a child's suitcase from Poland at the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. Although they know little more than the owner's name, Hana Brady, the Japanese teacher and her students set out on a global research quest to discover
all they can about the life and fate of this almost-anonymous child who once owned the luggage.
Before they start a journey that will take them to Auschwitz and into the face of a child's death, the teacher wisely warns her charges that the world's stories fall into several categories: the happy, the sad and the horrible.
Hana's fate is in the last category. But her story is not horrible because it contains the life of an exuberant, innocent child, lived to the fullest. We slowly rediscover Hana through the eyes of the young people of a succeeding generation. The discovery, then, is not so much of her fate which we and the Japanese explorers suspect from the start but of the richness of her emblematic life and the agony of its interruption.
Director Sean Graney has the tough job of combining an accessible style for young people with such an intense theme. He mostly succeeds. Although staged on an almost empty stage with projections of somber archive material, the show bursts with life and vitality.
Some early sections are cheapened by being rushed, and the piece lamentably downplays a promised coda wherein the teacher explores with her students how to process their sudden discovery of the world's most heinous horrors. We could have all used that.
But although this show needs to feel more secure about itself, the story is nonetheless told in strikingly honest fashion. Several strong performances from the likes of Dev Kennedy (Hana's father), Mia Park (the teacher) and Greta Honold (Hana) ooze truth and quiet dignity.
Like many sophisticated works of children's theater, this fine piece suggests to the targeted young people that the world's children owe one another solidarity and thus a collective commitment to change.
And that museum official's answer? "I tell them everything. Eventually." Parents must decide for themselves, of course, when eventually has arrived. But if this feels like the moment for a telling of this particular 20th Century atrocity, this is a safe, inspiring showthat also glorifies the memory of the children who didn't even get their names on a valise.
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