Abyss of the Ages

Between 1938 and 1940, 10,000 Jewish children were saved from the horrors of the Third Reich. Sent out of Germany by their parents to the relative safety of unknown sponsor families, these children survived what their parents did not. This exodus -- the Kindertransport, as it became known -- provides the backdrop and title for Diane Samuels's emotionally complex play about the savaging and unforgiving power of history.

Kindertransport, on the boards at Stages Repertory Theatre, is a passionate, ambitious play, achieving what few dramas do anymore. It places its players inside the "mountain-sized" sorrows of a historical past, as the character Helga (Christianne Mays) describes them; is there any period from this century more tragic than Nazi Germany? But these characters are not simply mouthpieces for a playwright's agenda. Complicated and finely wrought, they are history's victims, but they experience that victimization with a gut-clawing suffering that can come only from a deeply private sadness.

Samuels weaves the performers into the larger backdrop of our political past with ingenuity. She dismantles time so that her characters move easily across the decades, from Nazi Germany to modern England, then back again to war-torn London. Eventually the present collides with the past, as it always does, and the effects are devastating.

The action takes place in an attic. Kirk Markley's somber and simple brown set, with high, narrow windows and boxes upon boxes of old tchotchkes, is the perfect place for a Freudian reckoning. The lights come up on Helga and nine-year-old Eva (Krista Forster), who asks her mother a startling question, "What's an abyss?" As Helga helps Eva pack for the harrowing train ride that will take will take her out of Germany, she avoids the question, saying only that Eva is her hope. In a breath-catching moment, Helga tells her child that children help parents cheat death. Heavy with the monumental suffering that Helga identifies later, this moment is also rich with a tender intimacy that actor Christianne Mays brings so completely to the stage.

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Helga is more than a historical icon, she is a mother suffering the loss of her child. Though Eva will live, Helga knows that she herself most likely will not. And she must say good-bye to a child she doesn't expect to see again. What is an abyss? For Helga, it is endless, unmitigated and horribly unjust suffering.

Beside Eva and Helga are Evelyn (Connie Cooper) and Faith (Rebecca Tindel-Bivens), a modern mother-daughter team suffering the kind of estrangement that happens often when the daughter grows up and moves out. Sophisticated and English-accented, Evelyn is the woman little Eva will eventually become. Her daughter, Faith, is rummaging through the attic, looking for things to cart off to her new apartment. They quarrel, and Evelyn is left feeling lonely and frustrated. Something about her daughter's leaving home has her all discombobulated and triggers memories of the past. We discover she has never told Faith about her life before England. Faith has no idea that her mother was born Jewish, that she herself is Jewish according to Jewish law.

It's a secret Evelyn has kept for for 40 years, with the help of Lil (Peg Glazer), her English foster mother.

Despite Evelyn's efforts to keep history at bay, her secret comes out, taking shape in a series of exquisitely acted scenes. Forster's little Eva rides the train out of Germany, suffering the attention of a Nazi soldier (played by an imposing Kent Johnson) who is nothing more than a misguided and dangerous yes-man. When the weary, frightened child arrives in England, she utters good-bye over and over. What she really means is hello.

This poetic irony captures the underlying tragedy of Eva's journey. The trip is both her salvation and her metaphoric death. Slowly Eva falls into the abyss her mother has tried so desperately to save her from. Eva is given pork for lunch by her well-meaning foster mother. She celebrates Easter instead of Passover. And when she discovers that her parents have been captured by the Nazis, she learns to pray for them in church. Her most defiant act comes on her 18th birthday, with her Christian baptism. She is fully reborn as Evelyn, the Christian Englishwoman who is phobic about trains and crosses the street whenever she spots a policeman. "I was cleansed, purified" that day, says the grown woman. It's a frightening speech, poisoned with the flavor of long-ago Nazi dogma.

As little Eva's identity unravels, Evelyn discovers and must reckon with the disparate threads of her own past that she has so willfully discarded. While rummaging through the attic, Faith finds a tin of letters and photos stored in an attic trunk. She questions Lil, the woman she believes to be her grandmother, and Faith discovers her mother's secret.

Evelyn is forced to face her past. "The older I get, the less of myself I become," she says. Forced to tell Faith all she can remember about her life before England, Evelyn says about her Jewish parents, "I think I must have loved them a lot at one time." Tragically Helga has fallen into the abyss of Evelyn's forgetting. And Evelyn is afraid that she will fall into that same abyss when her child leaves home. "All our children leave us," she says, "and one day they never come back."

As powerful as this play is, it has problems. Scenes between little Eva and Helga, and between little Eva and Lil, are more finished than those between Evelyn and Faith. And though Cooper's Evelyn has some quality lines, among the most deeply moving moments of the play, present-day scenes are flawed in many places, due in part to the writing. Samuels wants to demonstrate that the past creates the present and that we are all victims of what has come before, that history is inescapable. But this is not completely realized in the analogy she creates between the two mothers and daughters. And the potentially fine ending is marred by the weakness of this analogy.

Even with its problems, however, the production is riveting. Deborah Kinghorn's direction is smart and even ballet-like in the lyrical moments when the present embraces the past. Glazer's rough, tough Lil is perfect as the working-class Brit who means well even as she helps her foster daughter destroy her familial legacy. Forster, Mays and Cooper create the kind of complex characters that make live theater so deeply enriching. And Johnson, who takes on the four small male roles, makes each a discrete presence in the play.

Technical aspects of this production are lovely. David Gipson's dark and lonely lighting along with Douglas Robertson's chilling audiotape add the sort of richness to this theatrical experience that can only be dreamed of by most designers.

Nazi Germany shattered millions of lives in the '30s and '40s. History, though, is a hungry hunter. Nobody can get past it. Kindertransport explores the way in which monumental tragedy reverberates throughout time, throughout the present, throughout the diminutive lives of ordinary people who must struggle to make sense of it.

Kindertransport runs through March 28 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)52-

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