A Big Wig Production at Burning Coal Theatre‘s Murphey School Auditorium
Through Nov. 24
Eva, the protagonist of Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport, was one of the luckier Jews in World War II. She got out of Germany before the Holocaust, grew up and avoided most of the horrors that met her countrymen. All she had to give up was her family, her faith, her culture, her language and her name.
Kindertransport takes its name from the experience Eva had in which thousands of Jewish children were accepted by foster families in Britain on the eve of the conflict. The play suggests that while they escaped the violence of the Holocaust, they suffered another type of violence: the disconnect that comes with the loss of one’s culture.
By the end of the war, Eva speaks with a British accent, has been nationalized as a British subject and contemplates selling her gold Star of David for extra money. The prospect of leaving this new life behind to reunite with the remnants of her family, who have held on to the memory of her as a little German girl, seems as terrifying to her as escaping Germany in the first place.
The action takes the form of a memory play, with past and present co-existing on different parts of the stage, and characters sometimes moving from one era to the next, or even directly confronting figures from the past. The highlight of the ensemble is Marleigh Purgar-McDonald, who plays Eva at age 9. She’s required to convey fear, humor, insolence, resilience and sorrow, along with speaking in two languages and playing the harmonica. It’s a large load, combined with the dark subject matter, and she pulls it off with aplomb.
The cast overall is excellent; this is a female-centric story that deals with mothers and daughters in different configurations, and the format allows for a variety of characterizations within the context of the larger story. Local theater vet Sharlene Thomas conveys both warmth and bewilderment as the British woman who takes in Eva, while Mary Rowland and Laura Bess Jernigan as the mother and daughter who must bear the consequences of the decisions in the past convey the weight that decades of fear, guilt and avoidance can bring.
Page Purgar (Purgar-McDonald’s real-life mother) is both heartbreaking and frustrating as Eva’s mother, and Maggie Flaugher conveys the ambivalent brattiness and self-hatred of the teen Eva. As the sole male in the cast, Eric Morales slides easily between different roles, conveying everything from a contemptuous Nazi to a comical Brit, as well as the menacing figure of “The Ratcatcher”a German version of the Pied Piper that serves as a recurring nightmare for Eva throughout the story.
The production isn’t perfect: Although director Brian Yandle keeps a good pace overall, there’s a whole sequence with shadowed silhouettes at the top of the second act that feels a bit on-the-nose, and some of the transitions between past and present feel a bit muddled. It’s an exploration of a wrenching emotional situation with no clear-cut answer, and it reminds us that even those who avoided the Holocaust were still affected by it in painful ways that are not always clear.
This production helps support the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust in funding filmed testimonials of other survivors; attending will not only educate you on this lesser-known part of history but also help stories of real-life Evas be preserved as well.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Bad old Europe.”