The Times (NWI), April 17, 2008

'Hana's Suitcase' teaches touching lessons of Holocaust


 In keeping with its mission to entertain and educate, Chicago Children's Theatre is staging the poignant and historical "Hana's Suitcase." The play, which tells the story of Czech youngster Hana Brady and her plight at Auschwitz, runs through May 11 at Storefront Theater in Chicago.

 It may seem unusual that the subject of a children's theatrical production is the Holocaust, but "Hana's Suitcase" deals with the atrocity in a unique and sensitive way. "This is a sweet, honest story about the need to make a connection," said Sean Graney, the show's director. Graney, artistic associate at Chicago Children's Theatre, previously directed the organization's hit "Honus and Me" last summer. He said he's enjoying working with the talented 11-member cast on this unique production geared toward families.

Through the play, audiences are introduced to Hana and her brother George via a Japanese teacher and her students who explore Hana's life. It's based on a true story of the teacher, who runs Tokyo's Holocaust Education Resource Center, and her quest to teach her students about Hana and the events surrounding the Holocaust.

When a suitcase stamped with Hana's name is delivered to the center one day, the journey to get to know the girl begins. The play, adapted by Emil Sher, is derived from the best-selling book "Hana's Suitcase" by Karen Levine. Children's Theatre's artistic director Jacqueline Russell decided to present the play in April, in conjunction with National Holocaust Month.

For Graney, the script was quite compelling. "I thought the structure was very interesting and I liked the story. It's not your typical Holocaust play," Graney said, adding it's filled with educational aspects that encourage children to learn more about the history of the Holocaust. "It encourages dialog," he said. Graney hopes children and their families will leave with a deeper understanding of the grim, terrifying time period and the real people surrounding it. "It was challenging and exciting to work on this play," Graney said. The challenges, he said, came about because he had to deal with such a horrific subject matter but also subdue it to make it appropriate for young theatergoers. "It's a serious subject but there are also comedic moments which don't underscore the seriousness," the director said. Given the "gruesome" events of the Holocaust, though, it was something that he "didn't want to shy away from," he said. "So we have implied violence, which is done offstage and we deal with it also through light projections and sound," Graney said.

The director, who has worked with Chicago Children's Theatre for the past two years, said it's been a joy to present theatrical works to young audiences. "It's been a great experience for me. The (family) audiences are so interesting and accepting," he said. Introducing youngsters to the theater, he said, is important because it adds another dimension to their lives. "Encouraging children to go to the theater at a young age is very healthy," he said. Graney admires artistic director Russell's mission that Chicago Children's Theatre is dedicated to "creating experiences for the whole family."

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