Workshop Theater’s “Through the Darkness” Review – Fresh Insights about the Holocaust
I’ve attended plays at the Workshop Theater Company in the past and have been impressed by their productions. The theater, an Off-Off Broadway venue, is located in what was once New York City’s garment district, on west 36th Street, and has two stages. The Jewel Box is a 30-seat theater where new work is developed. The 65-seat Main Stage hosts full productions that are comparable to Off-Broadway shows and are in the final stage of the development process.
When the opportunity arose to see a world premiere there, “Through the Darkness” by Alan C. Breindel, on the Main Stage (playing until April 1st), I arranged to go. The play is about the Holocaust, based on actual life stories. Breindel interviewed survivors and created composite characters. I wondered if the narrative would offer new insights about this tragic period of history. The play does offer fresh insights and much more.
“Through the Darkenss” is a beautiful, moving, inspiring play about survival, prejudice, inhumanity, and acts of kindness—small and large. Leslie Kincaid Burby, the director, orchestrates the powerful production with a flawless ease. The staging and structure is in the tradition of “The Exonerated,” which also gives true accounts of people’s lives.
The simple set invites the audience in: four chairs on the stage, bare black walls except for a large, rectangular black-and-white photograph hanging on one wall, a photo of refugees—women in babushkas, men, children, all crowded together, clearly searching for a home.
Four Jewish characters tell the stories of their lives during the Nazis’s reign in Europe. Each faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to daily survival. The audience meets them when they are in late middle age, living comfortably in America in the mid-1980s. Three of the four managed to avoid the horrors of the concentration camp and remain free, even though freedom meant running from place to place to try to save their lives. A fifth character stands on the left of the stage, talks to the other characters and interjects historical facts at crucial moments, giving the stories a context.
When a character speaks, a light shines on the person; the others sit or stand in semi-darkness. The four survivors do not look at each other or interact until the last scene
Simon (Robert Meksin) is clever and resourceful, wears casual pants and a shirt, and calls himself a “shark.” He is from Radzyn, Poland. He tells us, “I was born with a gift. I knew how to run.” Clara (Tracy Newirth) fled Dolina, Poland at sixteen with her older sister. Clara wears a bright turquoise blouse and flowing skirt and speaks with the charm and wonder of a teenager, despite her experiences during the war. The steely Helen (Emily Zacharias) grew up in Lodz, Poland. She is dressed elegantly in heels and a red knit dress, and she recounts with despair how she lived in the Lodz ghetto and then was sent to Auschwitz. Peter(Alex Dmitriev), raised in an upper middle class family in Nuremberg, wears a suit, white shirt, red tie and red handkerchief in his pocket, and speaks with quiet dignity and intelligence. His family left Germany in 1938, finally settled in America, where he lived safety until he became a soldier, was sent to Europe and captured. He recounts the words engraved on his rifle, words his father told him and that he thought about when he was a POW: “Through the darkness to the stars.”
“The Writer” (Jed Dickson), wears a simple shirt, pants, and blazer, questions the characters from time to time, talks to the audience, and plays other roles such as a Jew, a Nazi, a father.
The staging transmits the complexity and authenticity of the stories. Moments of humor and sweetness are woven into the play, even in the face of terrible events.
And the audience is transported to the characters’ worlds—Poland, Germany, Russia, Siberia, London, New York, and New Jersey.
The twists and turns of the characters’ lives are gripping. We witness anger, shock, fear, cruelty, loss, courage, resilience, hope and love. Each character is life-like, appealing, and vital. I was moved to tears at times. The cast is excellent and so fully inhabited the characters that when I talked to the wonderful actress, Tracy Newirth, afterward, and she spoke without an accent, dressed in contemporary clothing, I was momentarily surprised, disappointed even. I’d almost expected to speak to the Clara I saw on stage.
Early in the play, “the writer” tells us: “…1933 marked the opening of the first drive-in in Camden, New Jersey and the premier of King Kong at Radio City Music Hall. It was also the year Hitler established the first concentration camp, 10 miles northwest of Munich in the town of Dachau. At first, for German Communists and Social Democrats, trade unionists and political opponents. Then Jehova Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals and repeat criminals. And in 1938, the Jews.”
“Through the Darkness” gives us perspective on the cost of survival, how precious freedom is, and how easily it can be snatched away. The play is especially timely as refugees wander in the contemporary world, desperate to find a home; our country and others are closing their borders; and acts of hatred and Antisemitism are rising.
But the play is not a history lesson. It has a poignant, affecting, emotional core.
This is Briendel’s first play. He moved to Short Hills, New Jersey in 1987, and met a neighbor who told him in bits and pieces the stories of his survival. The neighbor became the model for the character of Simon.
“…I was already beginning to sense that the memory of the Holocaust was fading,” Briendel writes, “and that lesser known narratives were needed to insure its lasting memory. Over the ensuing years, I interviewed women and men with similar stories of survival which I managed to weave into four distinct characters.”
He is hoping to give voice to the play in other venues and also present it to high school groups. The play is not specifically designed for younger people, but the production staff feels that the play is persuasive and will challenge young audiences.
Thomas Cote, Artistic Director of The Workshop Theater, noted that the play’s lessons are universal; it is basically a story of people surviving a genocidal conflict, a war.
During a talk-back with Cote, Briendel said, “If we can connect, we are much less likely to hate.”
For group sales, contact Keven Stanfa at The Workshop Theater and check the Workshop Theater website
Call: 212 695-4173.