THEATER | “Hiding in the Open” at the History Theatre: Affecting and enriching

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Sabina Zimering was 16 years old when she and her family were forced into a Jewish ghetto in Poland. Now in her 80s, Sabina lives in St. Louis Park and on Saturday night was at the History Theatre in St. Paul to witness the revival of 2004’s Hiding in the Open, the play based on her 2002 memoir of the same name. Both tell the remarkable story of how Sabina and her sister Helka survived the Holocaust right under their enemies’ noses.

After the Nazis forced them into the ghetto, Sabina (Elise Langer) and her family survived in their one-room quarters merely on watered-down soup and hope. Amid growing concerns of being captured by the Gestapo, and their mother’s own capture, the girls’ father urged them to take the fake Catholic papers they had obtained and head to Germany. His risky suggestion would ultimately save their lives.

hiding in the open, playing through march 21 at the history theatre. for tickets ($25-$30) and information, see historytheatre.com.

Once in Germany, Sabina and Helka (Devon Solorow) blended in with other Polish immigrants, keeping quiet and trusting only each other. They eventually found themselves working at an upscale hotel that was frequented by the Gestapo and although they lived a lifestyle that provided them good food and warm beds, they never forgot the imminent danger they were in. Eventually, the war ended and they returned to Poland where they learned their father had died in a concentration camp. But the play ends on a more uplifting note, promising a bright future for the two sisters.

The play premiered at the History Theatre six years ago, but opened on Saturday with a new director, set design, and cast. Director Hayley Finn does a good job reminding the audience that they’re seeing a performance. The actors remain onstage for most of the piece, visibly changing costumes and characters, and at times participating in the narration of the story. But this stylized approach doesn’t distract; instead, it underscores the story’s historic background and reliance on memory. Playwright Kira Obolensky also reminds the audience that at its core Hiding in the Open is a story of two sisters. Even in distress, the girls giggle over first kisses and gossip about co-workers. It’s a delicate balance, but the actors pull it off.

As Sabina, Elise Langer is modest perfection—a feat I’m sure is even more difficult when the woman you’re portraying is watching your every move. Langer captures the fear Sabina must suppress as well as the confidence needed to avoid exposure. Devon Solorow as Helka is a young talent to watch. She brings humor to scenes seemingly effortlessly and complements Langer well.

The supporting cast is just as engaging and strong as its two leads. Most notable is Laura Esping, who juggles multiple female adult roles flawlessly and each time creates a distinct, memorable character. Peter Thomson (as the girls’ father) and E.J. Subkoviak (as Uncle Sam and others) are also excellent. I could continue to list the remaining cast members, because all were equally effective.

My only complaint about the piece is that the ending felt rushed. After the war ends, there is a lot of information the play tries to cover, but little action to go along with it. Historic information such as that the woman who provided Sabina’s and Helka’s fake papers was part of the Polish Underground is appreciated, but because it’s presented in dialogue rather than the style of narration used in other sections of the play, it feels hurried. Regardless, Hiding in the Open is one of the more enriching productions I’ve seen in some time.