Kindertransport is a disquieting piece of theatre. On one level, that’s not surprising. Much of what’s been written about Nazi Germany is, and rightfully so. But this, talking about the evacuation of Jewish children to Great Britain, just as the war is about to start, would seem like it could be warm, perhaps even charming. Escaping from storm troopers: What could be bad?
Well, lots. This isn’t a full-out dread sort of story. But it’s certainly unsettling, with ramifications most of us haven’t thought about. A 9-year old girl, Eva (Hannah Ryan) is being sent off to Great Britain by her mother (Kelley Weber) and unseen father. Things are snowballing in Germany, and her parents tell her they will be able to follow her soon. But they can’t, and the woman, Lil (Kirsten De Broux), who takes her in is kind but unlearned about Jews and Judaism. Scenes flash back and forth between all this and the life of the now-grown Eva, re-named Evelyn (Michelle Hand), and her own daughter, (Katy Keating).
The main question we are faced with here is what did it do to the children? They were sent away by their parents for motives most of them didn’t understand, arriving in a strange country whose language they didn’t speak and being brought to foster homes whose adults were adjusting to all this too – although some ended up in hostels and such, without even foster parents. Word from their birth parents was intermittent at best, and the rituals of their homes, both religious and personal, were changed or evaporated altogether. The amount of tears, the nightmares, the acting-out overall must have been tremendous.
Eva, now Evelyn, stayed in Manchester, England. Her foster parents adopted her, and when we see her she’s middle-aged, with a daughter who’s old enough to be moving out but who, we note, seems to have some trouble cutting the cord. Her daughter, Faith, accidentally finds a small box of things in the attic, a storybook in German, some letters and a couple of photographs. Faith, we discover, has never been told about her mother’s early life. She’s livid, but Evelyn stonewalls, and won’t talk about it. “That’s the past. It has nothing to do with you.” Evelyn’s livid with her adopted mother, who’s on hand, for admitting to Faith that, yes, it’s true, I didn’t adopt your mom as a baby.
Evelyn is as controlled and minimizing as a well-oiled machine, certainly not one to make a scene, unlike Faith, who is convinced that she has been deprived of a birthright by the withholding of the information. Evelyn is more English than the English, we might think. But this isn’t Englishness, this is playing full-court defense against pain.
Michelle Hand, as the grownup Evelyn, is as hard and faceted as a diamond, quite lovely but able to scratch hard surfaces, like, oh, her daughter. Katy Keating, playing the daughter, is volatile and covers her own unsureness with frequent eruptions, enough that it’s hard to be sympathetic with the character. Their set-tos are well-staged by director Deanna Jent, as are the others in the show. De Broux and Weber do their Mom-ing warmly and well, and Hannah Ryan as Eva goes from 9 to her late teens smoothly and believably, giving hints, we realize in retrospect, of what she’s becoming as she’s learning about ham sandwiches and becoming Evelyn. Brian J. Rolf, he of the remarkable cheekbones, covers the stylistic front, going from a Nazi official on the train to a do-gooder trying to wrangle the little girl on her arrival in London and more. (Although the idea of a British postman getting the child to do “Heil Hitler!” salutes as part of a joking interaction is remarkably strange.)
The staging gives us a wide, not terribly deep two-level attic from Kyra Bishop. The audience is on three sides, two rows in front and more on each side. Nancy Bell, the voice coach, has given us Mancunian accents that work quite well for the mother, daughter and granddaughter. Alas, the acoustics swallow some dialogue when actors are facing away from one side or the other of the audience.
No tidy ending, to be sure. But interesting things to contemplate and some fine performances.
Mustard Seed Theatre
through September 4
6800 Wydown Blvd (enter off Big Bend)