In the year before World War II broke out in earnest in Europe, the British government established a policy that allowed for 15,000 Jewish children to flee Nazi-controlled territory to find relative safety in U.K. foster homes, schools and other housing. This effort to evacuate these children was known as the Kindertransport (German for “children’s transport”), and it likely saved most of their lives; often, these children were the only survivors of their families.
British playwright Diane Samuels’ 1993 play “Kindertransport” examines this story of survival through the lens of Eva, a German girl who is taken in by a British foster mother named Lil. The play is an intense exploration of Eva’s experience integrating into her new family and life, as well as the aftermath of her experience as she attempts to live a normal life as an adult in England in the 1970s.
The story is deeply moving, but perhaps not in the way one might expect; the play focuses much more on Eva’s experience as an outsider in Britain rather than exploiting the emotional well of horror and sorrow that one often finds in works about the Holocaust.
A new production of “Kindertransport,” co-produced by Trinity Street Players and Austin Jewish Repertory Theater, could not be more timely. As a deep exploration of the immigrant experience, and the ways in which it is a heartbreaking test of the self rather than any sort of free ride, the play clearly holds contemporary relevance. However, the producers and director certainly couldn’t have known that the show would premiere the same week as migrant caravans, consisting largely of children seeking safety from government oppression, are all over the news.
As such, though “Kindertransport” is certainly emotional, the dominant feeling I came away with was rage at the fact that this is still such a pertinent story for 21st century America, whereas a production two years ago would have left me feeling sorrowful over Eva’s wrenching experience.
That experience is portrayed with nuance by Jessica Cohen and Taylor Flannigan, as Young Eva and Teen Eva, respectively. Each of them excels at portraying Eva’s internal conflicts as she adapts to British culture. Cohen, in particular, turns in a remarkable performance that combines youthful naïveté with an inner core of strength and sorrow as she confronts very adult concerns. Director Jim Lindsay excels at creating quiet, emotional scenes between Eva and her foster mother, Lil (played by Laurie Coker), as well as flashback scenes with her German mother, Helga (played by Laura Galt Suavely).
With its emotional content and painful relevance, “Kindertransport” is not an easy show to watch, but it is a necessary exploration of how events unfolded historically so that we can — hopefully — learn how to keep them from reoccurring.
When: 8 pm. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through April 29, with additional 8 p.m. show April 11 for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Holocaust Remembrance Day pre-show talks at 7:30 p.m. April 11-12.
Where: Trinity Street Players’ Black Box Theater, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: Free, but reserve tickets online