Wilner finds ties to 'Senesh'

April 05, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When actress Lori Wilner was preparing to portray Hungarian-Jewish World War II martyr Hannah Senesh, she did plenty of research but deliberately chose not to meet the Senesh family.

"Sometimes, when you get too close to people who knew her very well, there's such a thing as too much information, which might be restricting," Wilner explains.

So she was especially gratified by the reaction of Senesh's brother George. After he and his mother attended a performance of Wilner's one-woman show, "Hannah Senesh," in Israel a decade ago, he told her: "You don't look like my sister, but you act like her. It's like you've captured the essence of my sister."

"That was something we were very glad to hear," the New York-based actress says of her collaboration with David Schechter, author and director of "Hannah Senesh," which opens tonight at Center Stage as part of the one-woman show series, "The Feminine Singular: Women Speak Solo."

Wilner contacted Schechter about creating the piece in 1983 when she had an opportunity to do a workshop production at a small New York theater. The playwright and director, with whom she had worked before, suggested that since time was limited, they create something based on a historical figure.

Senesh proved a good choice for two reasons. First, she had a fascinating and dramatic history. A Zionist who left her native Hungary in 1939 to live in Palestine, she was the first female paratrooper in World War II. After parachuting behind enemy lines, she and five male colleagues were captured and executed by the Nazis. She was 23.

Senesh was also a good subject because she left written records, including a diary and poems. Schechter used the diary as the basis for his script, about half of which is verbatim transcripts.

The poetry took the show in an unexpected direction. "We realized that we were really looking at a musical play," says Wilner. "Because Hannah Senesh was a poet, it seemed perfect to create a piece where the poems were songs." The music was composed and arranged by Steven Lutvak, with contributions by Elizabeth Swados and Schechter.

This show isn't the first time Wilner has sung at Center Stage. In 1991 she appeared in the revue "Those Were the Days," which played a sell-out engagement at the theater after a six-month run in New York, her Broadway debut.

Wilner, who was born in Long Island and grew up in Queens, originally planned to be a concert pianist. But she graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a degree in theater in hopes of pursuing "something which was a little bit more all-encompassing."

"Hannah Senesh" -- which ran for five months off-Broadway and in which she has toured extensively -- was her first major acting break.

Wilner felt a strong connection to Senesh almost immediately. Like Senesh, she has kept a diary since she was a young child -- a practice she continues to this day, using her own journal as a prop in the show.

She and Senesh also share the same birth date -- July 17. (When Wilner began performing the show, she was roughly Senesh's age when she died.)

In addition, she identified with Senesh in terms of her own Jewishness. "Being Jewish has enhanced my understanding of this character, and this character has enhanced my experience of being Jewish," says the actress, who visited Baltimore's Holocaust Memorial last week and placed a stone on the monument in Senesh's memory.

Performing this play during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover -- which begins April 14 and commemorates the exodus from Egypt -- is especially poignant for Wilner. "It's one of my favorite Jewish holidays," she says. "It's a celebration of freedom from oppression. And in a certain sense, that's what this play is about, too."

Wilner says Senesh set an example that, even today, can provide hope for a better future. "This is a true role model," she says, "truly a person who lived a life you can look at and say: 'Wow, she had a very high moral fiber. She made the world a better place.' "

'HANNAH SENESH'

Where: Head Theater, Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees 2 p.m. Sundays and April 22, and 1 p.m. April 12. Audio-described and sign-interpreted performance 1 p.m. April 12. (No performance April 8.) Through April 23

Tickets: $23 and $28

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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