Hana’s Suitcase is a wonderful, horrible story. Hana’s Suitcase, the play, is neither wonderful nor horrible.
In the year 2000, the Holocaust Education Centre in Tokyo receives a suitcase from Auschwitz belonging to a girl named Hana Brady who died there. To help educate the children of the Centre about the Holocaust, the director and some of her students make it a project to find out as much about Hana as they can.
Their inquiries get them some of the drawings Hana made at the Theresienstadt concentration camp before she was sent to Auschwitz. Then, the director travels to the former Czechoslovakia and unearths information about Hana’s family, including the news that her brother George survived Auschwitz and the war and is alive in Toronto. At the end George comes to Tokyo, meets the Japanese children, and sees his sister’s poignant suitcase.
The best-selling book by Karen Levine has been turned into a play by Emil Sher, produced by Toronto’s Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The production, ironically, is co-presented in Vancouver by Green Thumb Theatre, whose own plays for young audiences are so much more dynamic and imaginative than this.
Teresa Przybylski’s set is a handsome modern Japanese housefront, before which the director of the Centre, Fumiko Ishioka (Ginger Ruriko Busch), deliberately builds Hana’s story for the benefit of two children, Akira (Dale Yim) and Maiko (Ella Chan).
It’s difficult to know how old the children are supposed to be. The actor Yim looks to be in his early 20s but plays Akira as if he were a slightly brain-damaged ten-year-old. He’s cute and kind of funny, but his questions about Hana and the Holocaust often seem ridiculously naïve. And the Socratic method of exposition—Akira asks questions and adult Fumiko or wise-for-her-age Maiko answers them—makes for a pedestrian opening act.
As the three Japanese talk about Hana, the actor playing her (Jessica Greenberg) moves soundlessly through the scene dressed in her 1940s attire, along with death-masked actors miming their journey to and through the death camps. These sequences ought to be chilling but under Stewart Arnott’s direction they are not.
The most effective elements of the play’s first half are black and white and gray projections of period scenes, colour projections of Hana’s drawings, and the terrible sound of railway boxcar doors sliding open and shut. These are so much more evocative of the Holocaust than anything happening live on stage.
The second act brings Hana and her family to life. In scenes reminiscent of the familiar Anne Frank story, we watch their normal, happy pre-war life turn to nightmare as growing anti-Semitism leads finally to deportation and the camps.
In the single most powerful moment in the play, the Japanese children meet the adult George (Erik Trask) and he sees Hana’s suitcase, while heartbreaking photos of George and Hana as happy kids are projected against the backdrop.
There’s no question that telling stories like Hana’s and educating today’s children about the Holocaust are profoundly important tasks. I just wish this story could have gotten a theatrical telling worthy of its profundity.