Adapted by Emil Sher, from the book by Karen Levine
Performed by Burgandy Code, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Jan Filips, Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, Gil Garratt, Matthew Gorman, Manami Hara, Janet Lo.
Directed by Susan Ferley
Grand Theatre Production
Grand Theatre, London
February 12 to March 1, 2008
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
An Evocative Story Very Well Told
Right after a show, friends sometimes call or email me with questions before I get the review written. Did you like Hana’s Suitcase? No, it’s not likeable. Was it well done? Yes, absolutely.
Hana’s Suitcase, now playing at London’s Grand Theatre, is by far the most emotionally draining show I have ever seen. I knew I was going to see a play about the holocaust. Obviously, this was not a comedy with a fairy tale ending. But I was certainly unprepared for how Hana’s story gripped my heart, how moved I felt, how many tears would flow, and how it still haunts me days later.
The story begins in Japan, where Fumiko Ishioka (Janet Lo), a teacher at Tokyo’s Holocaust Education Centre, displays some artifacts, which are on loan. Two school children, Maiko (Manami Hara) and Akira (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) are fascinated by an old suitcase bearing the name Hana Brady, her birth date of May 16, 1931 and the German word for “orphan”. Their many questions motivate the teacher to try to learn more about Hana. They write letters to Auschwitz, and other museums in Europe to find out Hana’s fate. Sadly, they learn that Hana was killed in the gas chambers at the concentration camp, but they are able to trace her life back to Czechoslovakia, and eventually they discover that she has a brother George, still living in Toronto, Canada.
George writes to the school children, and tells them of his and Hana’s idyllic childhood, pre World War II. He also tells of the ever-increasing Nazi regulations – they aren’t allowed to go to movies, then they can’t play in the park, then they can’t attend school and see their Christian friends. Finally, they must wear the Star of David at all times. Their parents are both arrested and taken away to concentration camps, but they stay on briefly with their Christian uncle. Then they, too, are taken away, first to a concentration camp in Theresienstadt, then in 1944 both ended up at Auschwitz. Hana is murdered immediately, but George, as he is able to do work, is spared. The Japanese children, so moved by Hana’s story, decide to share it with other school children across Japan.
CBC reporter Karen Levine heard about the Japanese project and turned the story into a radio documentary. In 2000 she published a children’s novel, intertwining the Japanese school children’s story with George’s sad account. The play follows the same format. In the first act, we hear the Japanese children, and see them in their research, while the characters of Hana (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) and George (Matthew Gorman) move silently about the stage. In the second act, Hana and George have voices, as the Japanese teacher reads the adult George’s letter.
Burgandy Code is exceptional in her many roles as the various museum curators, but most effective and endearing as Marketa, Hana and George’s mother. A new mother herself, she portrays both the unbelievable pain and the strength she had to summon to say a final goodbye to her children. As Karel, Hana and George’s father and the older George, Jan Filips is also very good. Gil Garratt does excellent work as several male characters and Uncle Ludvik, who has the horrific task of sending off his niece and nephew. Lo as the Japanese teacher is very successful in showing her concern about the children taking the news that is “sadder than sad” as she unravels the tale for them.
Dzailoszynski and Gorman as Hana and the young George and Hara as Maiko are all very effective in the difficult task of playing children and capturing the essence of youth. However, Garcia was not convincing as the Japanese schoolboy, perhaps because he appeared too old for the part and therefore his child-like antics came across as awkward and uncomfortable. Adults playing youth caught in very un-childlike situations can be a challenge for actors.
Director Susan Ferley has probably created one of her most memorable shows. Anyone in the audience will be unsettled by this poignant play for a long time. The stage is very plain yet very fitting – with several sliding doors, it is suitable for Japanese rooms, also appropriate museum storage, and even convincing as a train carrying crowded Jews to the camps.
Normally, opening night audiences at the Grand are generous with their appreciation. Standing ovations are usual. But on the opening night of Hana’s Suitcase, there was even a hesitation before applause filled the theatre. Clapping hardly seemed appropriate for such a gripping tale. There was no standing ovation, not because the cast didn’t deserve it, but because we were too drained to get to our feet.
Hana’s Suitcase continues at the Grand Theatre in London until March first. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.