It's hard to know what there is left to say about the Holocaust. Or how one begins to evoke its horror on stage. The concentration camps have become iconic as the subject of countless memoirs, histories, artworks, films and television movies; they're used to justify or condemn all kinds of political, ethical or philosophical positions. Many of those who endured the camps will not speak of them; others can speak of almost nothing else. And the generation that can bear firsthand witness to the genocide is aging and dying. The OpenStage Theatre production of Charlotte Delbo's Who Will Carry the Word? doesn't change our understanding of what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau in any significant way, but it does fill in some small but telling details and memorialize a handful of lost lives. It also suggests that there existed, even in the charnel houses, the faintest possibility of grace.
In 1943, 230 French women were deported to Auschwitz; 49 of them survived to see the end of the war. These were resistance fighters, women who had fought the invading Germans, spoken out or tried to shelter Jewish neighbors. They were also teenagers, mothers, grandmothers; some, like Delbo herself, were young wives who had already seen their husbands executed. Inside the camp, they died of cold, disease, exhaustion, starvation and despair. Or they were shot, beaten to death or mauled by dogs. Delbo managed to survive, and she collected the histories of the others. She attributes the survival of the 49 women to two factors: Political prisoners were treated marginally better than Jewish prisoners, and these women had known each other before entering Auschwitz. They shared a common language, and they had already formed affectionate relationships. It's humbling and inspiring to realize that human caring -- a word, glance or touch -- can strengthen the failing heart, even in hell.
The 22 OpenStage actresses form a kind of Greek chorus. Sometimes one or another steps forward to speak; sometimes there's a brief scene involving two or three; periodically the entire group moves, shaping and reshaping itself, talking or breathing as one. Much of the action is stylized. The most harrowing scenes take place off stage, underlined by sound or raking lights.
There are some problems with the script; it's verbose and repetitive. There's none of the stark economy of much Holocaust writing, in which the horror lingers between the lines. Instead, there's continuous talking, some self-conscious, even sentimental, poeticism, and an elegiac sameness of tone. It's impossible, of course, to tell this story realistically. Survivors have assured us that the most artistic, honest and telling depictions of life in the camps -- Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, for example -- only glide across the surface of what actually occurred. So we're aware that even though the women in Word are made up to seem ill, their arms and legs are healthily muscled. Or their shoes are too shiny. Nonetheless, the company works selflessly together and with such discipline and concentration that in the end they win, if not complete belief, then certainly suspension of disbelief.
Delbo's insight into how these women kept each other alive through small kindnesses is touchingly evoked here, though every now and then the script seems a little saccharine. Surely someone, at some point, lashed out in anger or stole another woman's crust of bread.
Who Will Carry the Word? doesn't have a conventional dramatic structure with one strong moment of climax or realization. Instead, it shows the endless drip of privation: the all-pervasive fear of violence; the torment of unending hunger, cold, helplessness and loss; the struggle to hold on to memory because in memory identity resides; the humiliation of dying of dysentery -- leaking constantly, unable to wash; the sheer length of a minute endured in these conditions, which is then followed by another minute and another; the way in which inmates come to long for death while still fearing it. It's not so much that we cling to life, one of the women observes, as that life clings to us.
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Many of the women draw strength from the memories of their mothers. The teenage Mounette, movingly played by J. Brooke McQueen, dreams of returning home. But her mother, standing at the sink, will not turn to look at her. When Mounette can no longer evoke her mother's face, she dies. Gina is a young married woman who keeps herself alive through sheer force of will, fantasizing out loud about chocolate and perfume, regaling the other women with stories about nights on the town and a beautiful black dress she wore once. But having held out so long, she confronts a horror that even she cannot surmount and commits suicide rather than joining the prisoner detail responsible for burning young children to death. Sydney Parks brings strength and dignity to this role. Shela Jennings is also strong as Yvonne, the woman with dysentery who manages to find a quiet resignation in meeting her end. Jessica Kinney is touching as vulnerable little Marie. Co-directors Gina Yowell Cochran and Jessica V. Freestone deserve credit for orchestrating this ensemble piece with intelligence, sensitivity and skill.
So now the question is why. Why another play about the Holocaust? Why the constant need to remember? What are we supposed to learn from this most hideous of human events? There are those who use the catastrophe as an excuse to inflict suffering on others: Your pain means nothing because it cannot match ours. There are others who draw a different conclusion -- that we must live consciously, fight injustice and mitigate suffering wherever we can. In her program notes, Jessica Freestone quotes one of Delbo's poems, "A Prayer to the Living":
I beg you
learn a dance step
something to justify your existence
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be senseless
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life.