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Theatre Review: New Jewish Theatre's "Hannah Senesh" Is Theatrical But Not Necessarily Theatre

(Courtesy of Jeff Hirsch)
St. Louis Public Radio Theatre Reviewer Donna Parrone

When entering the theater at The New Jewish Theatre’s current production of Hannah Senesh, you are immediately engaged with the set, a graceful, ethereal concoction by Peter and Margery Spack, which seems at odds with a tale of death and war but very appropriate once we meet our young heroine, Hannah, played with buoyant appeal by Shanara Gabrielle. Hannah’s tale is told through her diary, which she kept from age 13 to 23, ending right before the Gestapo executed her for treason. 

Credit (Courtesy of John Lamb)
Shanara Gabrielle in New Jewish Theatre's "Hannah Senesh".

One of the thorniest difficulties for this piece is the source material, a young girl’s diary. In bringing The Diary of Anne Frank to the stage, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett brought the people in Anne’s diary to life and gave them all voices. This becomes the major difference between a stage play, and a reading. In Hannah Senesh, playwright David Schechter edits her diary, which should not be construed as being the same thing as writing a play, or even adapting the source material into a play. Even the introduction of Gabrielle also playing Hannah’s mother, bookending the reading, doesn’t solve the problem; it just keeps us from being completely confused. This is not a play. At most, it is a memorized reading of a young girl’s diary and even with Gabrielle’s charm and vivacity, it does not hold up to be an evening of theater. 

Gabrielle, and director Kat Singleton work hard to enliven the “script” and keep us focused on the story. There is a push for humor and charm at the beginning that feels a bit forced but Gabrielle eases into it and her Hannah is full of joy and passion, song and poetry. Singleton keeps Gabrielle at this same note from age 13 to 21 when we suddenly see a shift in personality and maturity. The material feels like there should be another change in between, at 17 or 18 when she goes to Palestine to become a farmer. Anything Singleton could have done to massage more theater into the piece would have been welcome.

What I left with were many questions, and giving your audience fodder for discussion is always a good choice. How does a young girl, educated in private schools, gifted in music and language, become an extremist who heads off to the desert to farm? (Hannah joining the resistance was a much easier leap to make.) How do you continue to believe in an all-powerful god who loves you when you are being beaten, tortured, raped?  If it is the noble and the good who end up dead in war because they won’t compromise, what characteristics does that leave us in those who survive to continue our species? Does dying young always lend gravitas to what we leave behind?

The technical aspects of the piece were lovely. Seth Jackson’s light played beautifully on the diaphanous set pieces and the storm was striking. The parachute jump is an interesting piece of theatricality. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes were apt for the period and moved through time as necessary. I only wish the script lived up to all the work that surrounded it.

I applaud a desire to bring the story of Hannah Senesh to an audience. Perhaps a movie, or a full-length play where we see the other characters in her life would flesh this story out in an interesting fashion. The fact that Hannah Senesh was nominated for a Drama Desk Award only befuddles me further.

Hannah Senesh continues at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Theater through December 22nd.

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