The first time I had heard of the kindertransport was a play based on the life of Ruth Westheimer at New Jewish Theatre last year in a bravura performance from Susie Wall. Dr. Westheimer was a kindertransport child herself. Now Mustard Seed Theatre is opening their 10th season with a marvelous script by Diane Samuels based on the stories she has compiled about this unusual and somewhat controversial program set up in 1938.
I’m sure it didn’t seem controversial at the time- a group was formed in war torn countries during the Nazi regime to protect children (particularly Jewish children) from the horrors of the concentration camps and the violence against Jews at the hands of Hitler. The British based Movement for the Care of Children from Germany provided transport for younger children into Britain- some staying with foster parents, others staying at hostels, schools or farms. The problem being that these children had to be torn away from their parents with the hope that they would be reunited after the war. A lot of them did not and some, as we see from “Kindertransport,” had difficulty rekindling a relationship with their family.
Director Deanna Jent has taken the raw emotions laid out by the playwright and spilled them out over two acts, each encompassing less than an hour each. The lives affected are often hard to watch but Jent’s powerful lead brings us a story that we won’t soon forget. We first meet young Eva- a remarkable performance from Hannah Ryan- as her mother Helga- rock solid portrayal from Kelley Weber- as she explains to her daughter that she must go on the train and they will all meet up again soon in England. Being a child of nine, Eva can’t comprehend why she has to go without her family.
Flash forward to the 1970’s in England and we meet Evelyn as she is discussing her daughter Faith’s move out of the house into her own apartment. Michelle Hand gives a stoic and highly charged performance as Evelyn and Katy Keating is her vacillating daughter. Trouble ensues when Faith discovers a box of Evelyn’s keepsakes including a German children’s book and some photographs. Kirsten De Broux- with another great performance as her grandmother, Lil, tries to trivialize the mementoes away but Faith is adamant and demands an explanation from her mother. That’s when the true story of this family is revealed and pain and hurt roll over them and us like a tidal wave.
When Helga comes to England it’s just too late as her daughter’s lifestyle and her perfect British accent tell her what has truly happened. It’s a heartbreaking story that one wouldn’t expect from a program that was designed to save the children of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria. Rounding out the cast is Brian J. Rolf in a series of roles including a Nazi soldier, a mailman and a few other characters.
The Kyra Bishop set design is spectacular with a spacious attic space on two levels that doubles and triples as a few other settings as well. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the story and Jane Sullivan’s costumes hit just the right note for the 30’s and 70’s locales. Again a special shout out to Nancy Bell as vocal coach and Marlene Rene Coveyou as German language coach- particularly in the case of young Hannah, her German was impeccable and all of the accents from the cast were spot on.
Everyone will probably react to “Kindertransport” in a different way but everyone will be affected by this unusual play. It’s a good thing to read the program before the play starts to make yourself more familiar with the kindertransport program. As I said, I had never heard of it until the Ruth Westheimer play but this play makes the assumption that you may already know about the program. Enjoy a stirring evening with truly wondrous performances all around as “Kindertransport” plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through September 4th. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 or contact them at http://www.mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.