'Hannah Senesh' is a profile in courage

April 10, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In the moving opening monologue in "Hannah Senesh," the title character's mother recalls visiting the Hungarian jail where her daughter was imprisoned by the Nazis. The prison warden, she says, "knew [Hannah] was Jewish, but he also knew that she was a British paratrooper who had come to fight them and having been taught for years that Jews never fight back . . . he was struck by her courage."

The latest production in Center Stage's "Feminine Singular" series, this one-woman show -- written and directed by David Schechter and based on Senesh's diaries and poems -- is a tale of uncommon courage. It is also a relatively little-known tale. But this small, inspiring production helps turn a historical footnote into an important chapter.

A Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Palestine, Hannah Senesh joined the British paratroopers and became the first woman to parachute behind enemy lines in World War II. She is stirringly portrayed by Lori Wilner.

Wilner forms such an intense connection with Senesh, and with the audience, that even if you have never heard of this World War II martyr, by the end of the evening you feel you not only know her, but understand her.

The actress, who collaborated with Schechter on the script, has given herself a taxing assignment. In the beginning, she plays Hannah's mother -- an elderly woman who borrows some of her daughter's bravery as she attempts to tell her story dispassionately. In no time, Wilner reappears as 13-year-old Hannah, chomping a stalk of celery as she joyfully announces she's become a vegetarian, gotten a new party dress and attended a swimming match with her brother.

It is a tribute to Wilner's considerable skill that she makes the transition from Hannah's somber, sexagenarian mother to Hannah's enthusiastic, energetic teen-age self without being the least bit cloying. She is even more masterful at the subtler task of depicting Hannah's growth and maturity over the next five years, which culminate in the adult decision to join the Zionist movement and move to Palestine.

Much of the show consists of Wilner announcing and acting out entries from Senesh's diary (translated by Marta Cohn and Peter Hay). But the story is so compelling, and she inhabits her character so completely, that, far from a static "then and then and then" chronology, the evening seems to end far too soon.

That is partly because Schechter's staging and script -- approximately half of which is actual transcripts -- avoids sentimentality. It achieves this despite the inclusion of music. Composed mostly by Steven Lutvak, and expressively sung by Wilner in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, the score is so well-suited to Senesh's strength of character that it enhances our sense of her determination instead of romanticizing her.

"I know there are those who consider what Hannah did to be foolish," her mother says in the end, "but . . . it provided hope just when it seemed the whole world had closed its eyes."

A half-century later, the oppression of minorities is far from eradicated, and Senesh's story, relived by Wilner, can still provide hope.

'HANNAH SENESH'

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

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and April 22, and 1 p.m. Wednesday (which will be audio-described and sign-interpreted); through April 23

Tickets: $23 and $28

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

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