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Tucson Weekly Train Wrecked

"Kindertransport" is more about the human lives lost than those who were saved.

By Margaret Regan

APRIL 13, 1998:  ORDINARILY, YOU'D THINK of the Kindertransport as one of those rare, heartwarming stories of the Holocaust, along the lines of Schindler managing to save the Jewish workers on his now-famous list, or Wallenberg awarding Swedish passports to hundreds of Hungarian Jews.

The Kindertransport was an heroic effort to get the children of German Jews out of harm's way. Before Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, which effectively sealed the borders, some 10,000 Jewish kids rode the trains right out of the Fatherland, aided by a group called the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. The plan for their parents to join them abroad was abruptly derailed by the outbreak of war. The children's lives were saved, but most of them never saw their parents again.

Kindertransport, the searing play now on the boards at Invisible Theatre, looks at the emotional costs to the children. The play skillfully moves backward and forward in time, presenting its fictional heroine, Eva Schlesinger, first as a terrified 9-year-old about to be packed onto a train for England, and then as Evelyn Miller, a middle-aged Englishwoman who's hard as nails and wholly assimilated.

Wonderfully portrayed by Natasha Martina (Eva) and Maedell Dixon (Evelyn), these two often are on the stage at the same time, a technique that only increases the sense of incipient tragedy. The audience knows before Eva does that she will forget most of what she knows about her beloved parents, and that she will grow bitter about what she comes to see as their abandonment of her.

A simple attic in a house in a London suburb is the setting for these psychic horrors. Designed by James Blair, it proves a flexible vehicle for the play's time travels. A window seat to the right becomes a train carriage, a ship, a station; its big easy chair alternately seats Helga Schlesinger (Amy Lehmann), the stoic German mother about to lose her child, and Lil Miller (Jetti Ames), the kindly Englishwoman who eventually adopts the little girl. The attic also houses a box of photographs and letters dating back to the war. Evelyn, always careful to conceal her true identity, has kept the box hidden. But one day it's discovered by her daughter, Faith (Avis Judd), now a young woman about to leave home. Always disconcerted by her mother's coldness, Faith considers Evelyn's deceit a monumental betrayal.

Director Susan Claassen, IT's artistic director, reins in all these disparate parts to form a narrative that's engrossing and heartbreaking at the same time. A marvelous piece of stagecraft, the play is further enhanced by a sound design that brings the fearful clacking of the trains and the strains of a half-remembered German song onto the stage. The children's story of the Ratcatcher, a sort of Pied Piper who steals all the children of a town, is a metaphor that helps weave together the script's separate terrors. A nightmare figure who haunts Eva/Evelyn all her life, the Ratcatcher is portrayed by the malleable Stuart Moulton. He surfaces in the persons of a Nazi inspector, a bumbling English official, a sadistic mailman, and his claw-like hand recurs as a giant shadow reaching out to snatch her.

Playwright Diane Samuels has said her play grew out of the stories of friends whose families were ruptured by the Kindertransport. She wanted to know, she said, "What future grows out of a traumatized past?" Her play asserts that sometimes the answer is, not much of one. Evelyn is clearly a damaged woman. It might have been a greater kindness, Evelyn declares in an heretical moment, for her mother to have kept her, even if it meant that she would die, rather than to fling her out unprotected into the world. And Lil, the adoptive mother, has inflicted a different harm with her no-nonsense policy of looking only toward the future: She encourages little Eva to fling away her painful past, to discard the Judaism of her parents along with her own name. And Faith's sorrows bear witness to the propensity of pain to seep down like a poison from one generation to the next.

The play taps into a mournful truth: There are certain kinds of damage from which people do not recover. "What future grows out of a traumatized past?" Sometimes the answer is, not much of one.

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