It’s always hard to do a good job when your boss is looking over your shoulder. For the actors in Hiding in the Open, which premiered Feb. 25 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, it’s even harder to perform well with the real-life protagonist of your play sitting in the audience.
Hiding in the Open, directed by Hayley Finn, tells the survival story of St. Louis Park resident Dr. Sabina Schwartz Zimering and her sister Helka. It is based on Zimering’s memoir of the same name and adapted for the stage by Kira Obolensky.
A Theater Review
The play has yet deeper roots in Minnesota because it owes its genesis to a Star Tribune article written by Peg Meier, also in the audience on opening night – another reason for an actor to be jittery.
- Sabina (Elise Langer, left) and her sister Helka (Devon Solorow) are on the run in “Hiding in the Open,” a play based on the memoir of the same name by Dr. Sabina Zimering. (Photo: Lauren B. Photography)
Despite all these pressures, the cast of Hiding in the Open does an admirable job of bringing Zimering’s story of masquerade, deception, intrigue, loyalty, altruism and hope to the stage.
American Jewish World readers know that one way for Jews to survive the Holocaust was to take on Christian identities, and this was the survival method of Sabina (Elise Langer) and Helka (Devon Solorow), who are mere teenagers when the story begins in 1939 Poland.
Their family is forced to leave their comfortable, middle-class home to share an apartment for three years with grudging strangers in the ghetto. Scenic designer Erica Zaffarano does an excellent job of creating a sense of imprisonment for the family with her use of sparse props of metal and metallic gray to enclose the family’s room and the ghetto outside their window in Act One.
At their mother’s urging, and with the help of their caring Polish teacher (Laura Esping), the sisters obtain false identification papers and start their journey across Poland and Germany. This is the first, but not the last time that they encounter and are helped by Righteous Gentiles whose memories are planted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The play makes repeated use of suitcases as a metaphor for memories, and it is an excellent device. Their portability lends their use as a variety of props. What is more important is the symbolism of their contents, which are exposed at the play’s opening – each item has a connotation for a person, an event, a value that sustains the sisters and reminds them of who they truly are.
Even after they are forced to abandon their suitcases, following a humiliating and dangerous interrogation by Nazi officials, at the play’s end Sabina tearfully offers the audience the truth she has learned in her wanderings: “We left everything behind, but nothing ever left us.”
While Hiding in the Open‘s story is presented chronologically, each scene is somewhat of a vignette, complete in many ways in itself. It is as if the actors are reading aloud occasional entries from Sabina’s diary, learning truths of a life that can only be exposed in the secrecy and confidentiality of a diary – only this diary was written decades after the events it chronicles.
Kudos to Langer and Solorow for their stamina in remaining onstage nearly every minute and always in character. There is a large supporting cast, most of whom play numerous parts. Special praise must be reserved for E.J. Subkoviak, who morphs from cuddly Uncle Sam into a variety of progressively dislikeable Nazis. He reaches his zenith (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) as a diabolical wolf in Sabina’s nightmare. This effect is heightened by the lighting design of Chris Johnson.
The History Theatre’s original production of Hiding in the Open was staged in 2004. The facts of the story have not changed, but each audience brings something new to the performance, and it is worth seeing again and again.
The History Theatre is offering programs, free to all, on March 7 and March 14 to expand the understanding of the audience and the community of the history and meaning of the Holocaust. So see it once, and then see it again with wiser eyes. As Sabina’s mother reminds her, “They can take away your things, but they cannot take away what you know.”
Hiding in the Open runs through March 21. For tickets and a complete performance schedule, call 651-292-4323 or visit: www.historytheatre.com.