Colonials shine in `Kindertransport'

Play goes from history to universal theme

November 02, 2007|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

In its second show of the season, Colonial Players does what it does best: gets us to think on another level and stirs our emotions.

English playwright Diane Samuels' 1993 play Kindertransport, about German Jewish parents sending their children out of the country to escape the Nazi regime, focuses not only on the historical upheaval and exile, but also contains the universal theme of mothers helping adult daughters move to an independent life.

In Kindertransport we find three generations and witness in flashbacks as Helga in 1939 prepares her 9-year-old daughter Eva for a life without her, in a country where she will no longer hear her native language or practice her family's religion.

Eva's frightening journey on the train ends with her arrival in England, where she meets Lil, the Englishwoman who eventually becomes her adoptive mother.

In parallel, we see an adult Eva who has become Evelyn, the mother of teenager Faith. The daughter is preparing to leave home in the late 1970s.

The production benefits from the backstage talents of lighting designer Richard Koster and sound designer Wes Bedsworth, who create passing trains through sound and shadow to help us travel through time.

Terry Averill in his director's notes indicates how deeply he entered this "complex realm of anguished relationships" to discover how girls separating from their mothers are involved in a "struggle steeped in guilt over a necessary cleaving from one's origins."

Averill has assembled an excellent cast whom he describes as "willing to jump into the abyss to discover the richness of their characters."

The role of 9-year-old Eva, who is forced to leave her home in Hamburg, is alternately played by Mallory Newbrough and Hallie Grace Garrison.

When I saw the show, Eva was played by high school senior Newbrough. She transitioned from the frightened German-speaking 9-year-old on the train to a 15-year-old English girl without a trace of accent or apparent vulnerability.

Her scenes at the Manchester train station waiting for her German mother to arrive are poignant in their unspoken sadness. When Helga finally arrives in England after the war to resume their life together, Eva cannot return to her mother because she has become transformed into the English Evelyn.

Zarah Roberts gives a moving portrayal as Helga. It's a role that has elements of a classic Greek tragedy in her wrenching separation from her daughter and her inability to comprehend why the bond she feels so strongly does not exist later for her daughter. Roberts' German accent is convincing, as is her demeanor and touching stoicism.

Mary Watko delivers another first-rate performance as good-natured, warm-hearted Lil. She has the girl baptized Evelyn so that she'll fit into her new life, which removes her national and religious identity. Watko's Lil is a protective mother and wise grandmother trying to guide Evelyn through the minefield of Faith's breaking away.

The universal mother-daughter relationship is captured as the daughter resents the secrets her mother has kept from her. In Faith's discovery of her mother's German-Jewish roots and her desire to probe their depths, she is forcing her mother to confront a painful subject that she cannot face emotionally.

The role of Evelyn is well played by Theresa Lynne Riffle, who conveys the hollow core of her character and her need to project a perfect image to the world.

Although Riffle's Evelyn might have expressed more anguish when revisiting her German-Jewish history, I could accept this more easily than Riffle's strange accent, which resembled no English dialect that I've heard.

I was least satisfied with Rebecca Bare Savidge's portrayal of Faith. Savidge did not project enough anger or emotion, nor did she adequately express affection for her grandmother. Most important, Savidge needs to work on being heard. She was the only character who was difficult to hear in Colonial's intimate space, where this is rarely a problem.

Jeff Sprague skillfully plays a variety of roles including the Ratcatcher, a Nazi border official, a postman and a railroad station guard.

Samuels' work would be strengthened by humor expressed by one of the minor male characters. Not everyone that the child Eva meets has to be menacing or the purveyor of bad news.

Despite this reservation, Colonial's Kindertransport should be enjoyed by all serious theatergoers and students of history.

It continues weekends through Nov. 17. A forum on the Kindertransport program will follow Sunday's matinee performance. For tickets, call the box office at 410-268-7373 or visit

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