Peggy Sue Dunigan

Hana’s Suitcase

By - Sep 21st, 2007 02:52 pm
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“Stories can die if there is no one to tell them.” The line from Hana’s Suitcase, the First Stage Children’s Theater 2007 opening production, is revelatory. The story is the life of a 13-year-old Jewish girl and her family; the play tackles the drama and the difficulty inherent in preserving such tragic narratives.

Hana’s Suitcase deals with hard questions about the Holocaust – specifically, how to present to young people the challenging fact that one and a half million children died. At the Tokyo Holocaust Education Center, inquisitive students Maiko (Pahoua Vang) and Akira (Touly Vang) begin a search for the mysterious story surrounding Hana Brady and her suitcase, found at a concentration camp after World War II. As their teacher Fumiko Ishioko transforms questions into answers, they discover that Hana’s brother, George, survived the camps and lives in Canada. And while Hana’s story ends at Auschwitz, George’s story reminds Maiko and Akira that the lives destroyed prejudice, hate and war in the past continue to hold meaning in the present.

Based on a true story and a book by Karen Levine, the play was adapted by Emil Sher. The first half of the performance revolves slowly around scenic designer David Minkoff’s imaginative backdrop of bookcases, while throughout the entire play, costume designer Rick Rasmussen effectively uses dark masked figures to illustrate the dreadful days in the camps. As they move silently through the set with bright, blonde Hana, they provide subtle references to the underlying gravity of her circumstances. The action in second half of the play accelerates as the story of the Brady family and their eventual transfer to the concentration camps unfolds.

During the talkback, the cast members discuss how performing this play releases emotions. Tears are often shed behind the scenes as orphans George and Hana are split at the camps and Hana’s suitcase is left standing on a train platform. But Fumiko tells the children, “The story may leave us terribly sad, but then we must find our way out of the sadness.” The serious subject matter in Hana’s Suitcase presents opportunities to discuss not only a great tragedy of the 20th Century, but disaster and death as well. Delicately handled, the sadness is dispersed as George reminds Maiko, Akira, and Famiko the love that lasts in his heart will find a way to theirs.

Maiko and Akira finally title this love “small wings” as they plan a newsletter to remind others of these horrific events. These small, seemingly significant stories need retelling, including those children’s voices remaining silent or unheard, especially the children who died in the Holocaust. Ultimately this First Stage production belongs to Hana Brady, giving an important voice to all children, past and present, on stage and off. Hana’s Suitcase was left alone and behind but contained remnants of her soul, her story, that survives clear and strong. VS

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Hana’s Suitcase through October 7 at Todd Wehr Theater, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For ticket information call 414.273.7206.

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