Apple Tree Theatre

By Adam Langer

One moment toward the end of Apple Tree’s production of Kindertransport rivals any I’ve seen onstage for quite some time. Evelyn Miller stands in the attic of her London dwelling with her daughter Faith, having addressed for the first time her long-concealed youth as the child of Holocaust victims. Evelyn stares icily and helplessly at her daughter, who moves almost imperceptibly toward her as if for an embrace. But just before the seemingly inevitable hug, they freeze and share a silent, troubled glance suggesting more eloquently than any other moment in Diane Samuels’s play the painful ambiguities of survival, which no amount of distance or affection can cure.

It is this sort of ambiguity that makes Kindertransport a compelling, thought-provoking evening of theater. Turning the ethos of most survivor dramas upside down, Samuels suggests that survival at any cost is not necessarily desirable. In her cogent if not entirely persuasive argument, many of the children saved from Nazi Germany by British Good Samaritans, who became their new families, could not overcome the damage inflicted by permanent separation from their earlier families and identities. She calls into question the motivations of those who sought to save these children from concentration camps, implying that these acts may have been self-serving and insensitive. Tough and uncompromising, Samuels forces the audience to consider the role the “Kindertransport” rescue missions played in permanently scarring those who fled the Nazis.

The problem is that Samuels is never as subtle in setting up her drama as she is in addressing these controversial topics. Though there are a fair number of gray areas in the issues she tackles, her scenes are written in a black-and-white manner. Evelyn’s childhood, which we see in flashbacks juxtaposed with scenes from her adult life in London, is so idealized it strains credibility. The daughter of a doting, incomparably sweet mother, Evelyn seems to have had a sugar-coated infancy right out of a child’s morality story. It is Faith’s discovery of childhood mementos from Germany that forces Evelyn to face her past, when she was known as Eva, even if she can never come to terms with it.

Samuels, who’s written extensively for children’s theater, uses a variation on the Pied Piper of Hamelin story as a recurring theme. A tale about a rat catcher that Evelyn heard as a child from her birth mother and passed down to her daughter, it not only represents the blind devotion with which the German people embraced national socialism but also expresses the culpability of the British, who lured refugee children to their country with the offer of freedom but left them to drown in their guilt and self-abnegation. Using the rat catcher to express young Eva’s fear of Nazis and the adult Evelyn’s loathing for the British woman who permanently separated her from her family in Germany is a clever if somewhat simplistic ploy. It might have carried more weight if so many of Samuels’s devices hadn’t seemed borrowed from fairy tales or melodrama.

To Samuels, every adult the child Eva encounters is a variation on the rat catcher, from the Nazi soldier who harasses her on the train out of Germany to the lunkhead British postman who encourages her to give a Nazi salute and yell “Heil Hitler.” The playwright gives the conflicts between Evelyn and her British mother, who wants to keep Evelyn’s past hidden, and Faith, who wants to uncover it, greater differentiation. Still, they remain somewhat mechanical and formulaic: Faith comes to understand and resent her mother’s secrecy about her past all too quickly. The shouting matches between them, in which Faith berates her mother for not having told her about her origins, are over-the-top, and a scene in which Evelyn confronts her birth mother with having packed her off to England is thematically appropriate but rings false, a mere philosophical argument played in a blunt and overreaching manner.

What rescues this intriguing but problematic play from melodrama is Apple Tree’s deft production, directed by Stevi Marks and buoyed by the superb Lisa Dodson, who delivers an intensely intelligent and multilayered performance as Evelyn. With a subtlety of manner and a presence that one usually finds only in actors who have theaters named after them (like Ute Hagen), Dodson is compelling and believable even in the play’s most blatant, contrived scenes. Kate Fry as Faith nearly equals her, maintaining an empathic presence even when the script requires an exaggerated shrewishness. And as the young Eva, seventh-grader Laura Scheinbaum is stunningly mature despite a script that forces her to behave like a fairy-tale figure.

Their performances and the weight of Samuels’s material, historically and philosophically, are guaranteed to resonate long after Kindertransport’s final blackout. Unfortunately, they’ll probably be remembered a great deal longer than any element of the script. An excellent provocateur and impassioned moralist, Samuels will also be a truly great dramatist once the complexity of her characters and plot construction matches the strength of her ideas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kindertransport theater still by Jennifer Girard.