In a powerful theatrical amalgam of strong writing, sensitive and imaginative direction, dynamic ensemble acting, and an expressionistic, eerily evocative use of the human voice, Shauna Kanter’s The Gift creates a dark but ultimately life-affirming vision of a terrifying time. It was, as the play makes achingly real, a murderous time shot through with glimmers of light provided by individuals willing to put their own lives at risk to save humanity, one person at a time.
For many people, the Holocaust was a mind-numbing horror of six million murdered, a piece of history hard to imagine until the story of Anne Frank came into focus through her diary and a play and movies that told her story. The Gift has the same kind of power. A young woman–and the assumption must be that the play is autobiographical–is tantalized by the deathbed ramblings of her father who claims that he helped a woman and two children escape the Nazis in 1939. She follows clues hidden in his old, altered passport and in photos and other places, that lead her to the startling conclusion that her father, a Jew and a Communist, left his safe American life to enter the heart of darkness that was Berlin under the Nazis to save a mother and two little girls.
That story provides one of the main threads of the play. Another is the vibrant life within the Yiddish theater of Berlin, peopled by Jewish Berliners who are in various stages of denial about the growing atrocities around them. These characters make it painfully clear how tempting it must have been for Jews, even in the shattering darkness of Kristallnacht, to believe that it would all come to a peaceful end, that good Germans would just vote this madman and his mad party out of office.
As background to these very personal stories is the larger picture of Berlin and everyday Germans that is dramatized through powerfully evocative movement and the human voice, chanting, sighing, breathing, singing. This is expressive work of the highest order and it is flawlessly conceived and performed. Since the character of the woman who escapes is a photographer determined to use her camera to document the horrors all around her, slides of period photographs support the action.
In a production where the ensemble acting is so strong, it is difficult to point to the actors who truly stand out. Sean Souza, who plays the central character, is excellent, emotionally open and true to the shifting emotions of a man who must transcend talk and put his beliefs into action. As Vera, his wife, who also puts herself at mortal risk in the process of getting the photographer and her children out of Berlin, Selena Cantor is mesmerizing. Her character must go in an instant from being terrified to being courageously resourceful and Cantor makes it all heart-stoppingly clear and moving.
Lee Michael Buckman is brilliant as the theatrical impresario of the city’s Yiddish theatre. His character is the droll, often humorous master of denial, and the moment of his shattering realization that the Nazis do indeed wish to destroy him is subtly and beautifully realized. Irene Glezos is the photographer, going about her day-job snapping publicity photos for the acting company and then moving through the streets taking what could easily be her last photos to prove to the world what really was happening. Glezos gives a performance that is utterly believable, perfectly creating the emotional texture and psychic weariness that such a person would feel.
The setting, by Slava Gordon and the lights by Robert W. Henderson, Jr., create a flexible world for the play, and Jenny Fulton’s costumes are a reminder that Germans of the period could be stylish dressers even in the face of the perils of the Nazis. Shauna Kanter’s direction of her own play, never an easy thing, is flawless.