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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

What makes Palestine the most special place on earth? — Rachel

Well. . . It’s like no other place you’ve seen before. It has a hundred faces. And behind those hundred faces are a thousand, a million more, looking for a fresh start, a new beginning. — Hannah

Liz Wisan and Kayla Maisonet
(Photo: Roy Groething)
Hannah is a commendable and informed play about Hannah Senesh, the Hungarian Jewish woman who returned to Europe from Palestine as a freedom fighter to rescue downed British flyers and also to help save Jews from the Nazis. Written by John Wooten, Hannah is based on the true life story of this heroic woman who pursued a path fraught with danger and uncertainty, one that she chose for herself as an ardent Zionist and as a member of the Haganah, the Jewish branch of the British army.

This play is particularly timely as we think about the heroism of the first responders to the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center on its tenth anniversary. Hannah can not help but remind us how so often in the midst of the most horrific of events and times, there will be those men and women who will step up and perform the kinds of incredible acts of courage that will inspire a nation.

There has been a lot written about various heroic individuals who braved untold dangers to aid and rescue those persecuted and tortured by the Nazi, but Wooten has used the actual poems and diaries of Senesh to frame his play based on real incidents. Notwithstanding its inherent reality, the play struggles to bring its narrowly sketched characters, other than Hannah, into the narrative. Hannah may not be the definitive perspective on this remarkable woman, but it does manage to speak well for the countless patriots and heroes who have not yet been immortalized in literature.

In the writing as well as in the strong and willful performance of Liz Wisan in the title role, we can see more than the outline of a dynamic and remarkable woman. There are glimpses of her growing from an impetuous, extremely bright young girl (as endearingly played by Kayla Maisonet) with a gift for writing poetry to becoming in adulthood a dedicated Zionist and a fearless soldier. The drama progresses through a series of flashbacks into Hannah’s life while she is detained, interrogated and tortured as a political prisoner in a Budapest jail.

In the early part there are scenes in which we see her and her mother Catherine (an affecting Jean Tafler) bravely coping with the surfacing of anti-Semitism in their beloved Budapest. At a private school for gifted students, they are told by the condescending superintendent (Tony Mowatt) that Jews who are lucky enough to be accepted at the school must pay triple the tuition.

Well-off financially and as the daughter of Bela Senesh, a successful Hungarian playwright who died when she was only six years old, Hannah and her mother are nevertheless soon enough aware that Jews, regardless of their social standing, are no longer welcome in Budapest society, the arts, or academia. As a result, Hannah acts on her urge to leave her home and to settle on a kibbutz in Palestine where she hopes to eventually bring her mother and brother George (Drew Hirshfield.)

As Hannah uproots herself and courageously undertakes a new life, we share her zeal and commitment. Committing her thoughts to her diary, Hannah, not unlike Anne Frank, shares with us her most intimate feelings. But the play is never passive. Although we only hear about her parachute training as she builds up the courage of Yoel (Michael Satow,) a young soldier who would prefer more of romantic connection with Hannah, the scenes that take place in the prison cell are the most dramatically compelling.

Maxwell Eddy is excellent as a prison guard who compromises his own safety by befriending Hannah. In addition to playing the young Hannah, Maisonet makes a strong impression as a young prisoner who is sent to Hannah as a cellmate to obtain and deliver information to Silon (Alan Coates,) the prison’s wily commandant. Coates gives a bone-chilling performance as the contemptible Silon, who not only tracks down Hannah’s mother, but also attempts to enlist her aid in getting Hannah to reveal secret army codes.

Under the direction of Adam Immerwahr, the play moves resourcefully back and forth in time, from incident to incident to its inevitable conclusion. Relationships are touched upon but there are only few instances when they are touching. Except for one scene in which the irrevocably insidious Silon prods the prison guard to sexually humiliate and abuse Hannah, the confrontations and events rarely build up the kind of emotional charge that fosters genuine audience involvement. In an effort to cram a lifetime of defining incidents into ninety minutes, Wooten may have sacrificed a more effective way for us to become more intimately connected to an amazing woman and her uncompromised cause.

For this production, the audience is seated on bleachers in the round. The action is performed on a relatively empty playing area with only a few props and a mobile cell door provided by scenic designer Joseph Gourley. Nadine Charlsen’s lighting is a plus as is the sound design by Greg Scalera.

By John Wooten
Directed by Adam Immerwahr

Cast: Liz Wisan (Hannah), Maxwell Eddy (Prison Guard/Police Officer 2), Kayla Maisonet (Young Hannah, Rachel), Jean Tafler (Catherine), Alan Coates (Silon), Tony Mowatt (Superintendent/Sondi/Frenchman/Guard 2), Tony Mowatt (Yoel), Drew Hirshfield (George/Bela/Police Officer)
Dramaturg: Clare Drobot
Lighting Designer: Nadine Charlsen
Costume Design: Karen Hart
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Scenic Design: Joseph Gourley
Sound Designer: Greg Scalera
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Premiere Stages at the Zella Fry Theatre, located on the Kean University campus, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ.
(908) – 737 – 4092
Tickets ($25.00)
Performances: Weekends through 09/18/11
A special performance on Sept. 8 will include a catered pre-show celebration of Hannah Senesh’s life at 6 p.m. in the Kean Human Rights Institute, a performance at 8 p.m., and a champagne toast with the cast at 9:30. Proceeds will benefit the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Kean.
From: 09/01/11
Opening: 09/02/11
Closing: 09/18/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/02/11
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