Someone ought to sit D.C. playwrights Christie Stewart-Brown, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, and Richard Rashke down and get them talking about theatrical agitprop. Judging from their respective plays, they’re too articulate to end up in an actual shouting match, but their arguments and audience-engagement methods hail from different enough planets that any conversation between them would almost have to turn into a feisty debate.
Stewart-Brown, author of the lesbian-parenting sitcom The Gene Pool, would almost certainly extol the virtues of submerging messages in character. Her blithe, sunny comedy, currently at Woolly Mammoth, is more about sex than sexual politics, with its two heroines nattering on brightly about marital frustration, extramarital affairs, and their son’s impending loss of virginity quite as if they were in some mainstream ’60s Broadway smash like Mary, Mary. The author slips in her messagethat nontraditional families can be nonthreatening and conventionalbetween lines that would work only slightly less effectively if the play had no point at all and one of its leading ladies were male.
Jennings, author of the sharply observed racial comedy Playing Juliet, Casting Othello, would doubtless argue for a more direct approach. Her play (which finished its Folger Theatre run two weekends ago but deserves to be brought back at the earliest possible opportunity) puts its ideological cards on the table through both character and brisk debates. It concentrates on the personal ramifications of a theater troupe’s nontraditional casting choices, allowing Jennings to illuminate the emotional heart of an argument that is usually articulated in abstract, cerebral terms. That the evening played like an Elizabethan Noises Off didn’t hurt, but what made it intellectually engaging was its flair for merging political commentary with laugh lines.
“Lay it on the line,” would be the approach favored by Rashke, whose Holocaust drama Dear Esther is receiving its world premiere at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Structured as a play-within-a-lecture, the evening delivers its remember-the-Holocaust message straight to the audience by means of a speech given by its title character about her experiences in Poland’s Sobibor death camp, and then delivers the message again, this time through an interior debate Esther is having with herself over the accuracy of her own recollections. Either version would be sufficienttogether, they amount to overkillbut the evening’s structure pretty much demands the double airing. Without the younger Esther, the evening’s just a lecture. Without the lecture, it’s a self-help seminar.
The interior debate finds sixtysomething Esther (Marilyn Hausfeld) confronting her twentysomething self (Makela Spielman) over the psychological impact of events in the camp. Some of those eventsa Nazi guard bashing an infant’s head against the side of a railway car, a tense encounter between Esther and a Polish farmer who guesses she’s a camp escapee, a trade of a dowry’s worth of pillowcases for a bar of soapare recreated with other actors, but what tension the evening has springs mostly from the sparring between Esthers young and old.
Dear Esther is based on the memories of Holocaust survivor Esther Terner Raab, some of which Rashke recounted in his 1987 book Escape From Sobibor. It was after the national broadcast of a TV dramatization of that book that Raab began receiving invitations to speak at schools near her New Jersey home. Letters sent by students who were moved by her talks then prompted Rashke to revisit Sobibor’s story in stage form. This adaptation, which was given a public reading last year at the Holocaust Museum, is the result.
The play is, as its history suggests, several steps removed from the immediacy of death camp horrors. And by structuring the evening as a mix of lecture snippets, decades-old memories, and charming letter fragments, the author ensures that those horrors will remain safely tamed and distant. The audience is being asked to deal not so much with what happened to Esther between 1940 and 1945 but with how she remembers what happened, how those memories shape her psyche, and how her psyche shapes the way she reacts to the children who send her poems, questions, and words of comfort.
So even if what’s at stake for the author is truth, what’s at stake onstage is nothing more than a coping strategy. The one that Esther has developed over the years is insufficient, says her younger self. She must pick at psychic scabs until she bleeds again. In my notes, I scribbled the line “To feel pain is my only link to Mama and Papa” without an attribution, but in retrospect, it doesn’t much matter which of the two Esthers said it. They’re in league, headed in the same direction for all their tugging and recriminations.
Leslie Jacobson’s staging is as taut as the material allows, using every inch of the broad contemporary lecture stage designer Carl Gudenius has backed with death camp gates. Helena Kuukka’s lighting helps clarify leaps in time, while William Pucilowsky’s costumes are as effective as they are rudimentary. The cast is fine, too, from the kids who chime in every so often with poems of support to the two leading ladies, who battle each other to an emotional draw.
And for all its structural drawbacks, Rashke’s script offers plenty of elegant phrasing as it pushes its reluctant heroine toward what she regards as a dangerous self-awareness. “You’re a deep river,” protests the young Esther during one such battle. “And I live behind a dam,” replies her senior self. “Fifty years of trapped tears.”
Such exchanges are presumably a large part of what attracted Horizons Theatre and the JCC’s Center Company to the material. And they’ll be a plus for the school-age patrons who constitute the show’s most natural audience and for whom Esther’s struggle to cope will likely seem revelatory.CP