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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Great American History Theatre sears the heart with Hiding in the Open

Hiding in the Open
Sara Marsh, Alayne Hopkins
To pack six years of hiding from the Holocaust, with multiple locations in different settings on a single set and to keep the story crystal clear is a theatrical achievement; to keep that story taut with apprehension and emotionally authentic throughout is a feat that the Great American History Theatre pulls off with grace in its strong premiere production of Kira Obolenski's Hiding in the Open.

Obolenski adapted retired Minneapolis ophthalmologist Sabina Zimering's Holocaust memoir of the same name. Sabina and her sister, Helka, were Jewish teenagers in Piotrkow when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Their family was dispossessed of their business and apartment and sent to live in an already overcrowded ghetto. When the Gestapo started shipping Jews out to death and labor camps, Sabina and Helka escaped with false documents provided by courageous Catholic friends. For the next three years, they passed as Catholic Poles, often with terrifyingly close calls, and worked for the Fatherland in Germany. They survived, sometimes right under the nose of the SS but, at the end of the war, few of their family in Piotrkow had survived.

Director Sari Ketter draws absorbing performances from Alayne Hopkins and Sara Marsh as Sabina and Helka. Both girls are strikingly young and fresh faced.

Hopkins shines as Sabina, the older sister. She captures her character's nature as an intellect, a sensitive dreamer who longs for the promises of young womanhood, but who is forced by extreme circumstances to be resourceful and devious. Thin, dark-haired and fine-boned, Hopkins looks the part and plays Sabina with naturalness, as she wrestles with the sisterly friction between herself and Helka and with the tension that threatens to overwhelm her.

Marsh is equally good as Helka. She looks and behaves like a younger sister, at times headstrong and difficult, but when Sabina's strength flags, Helka takes command. Together, they are spellbinding. They took me right into the emotional horror of their plight.

The able ensemble of David Doering, Angie Haigh, Mark Rosenwinkel, Randy Schmeling and Karen Weber fill out a large cast of family members, friends, work colleagues and Nazi's. Although their roles are many and costume changes are few, a mere shawl distinguishes the girl's mother, the presence of a newspaper, their news-hungry father. Michael Meyer and Andy Trotska alternate as the girls' little brother.

With Hiding's compact cast and single set, Ketter brings a spareness to the production that serves the play well in the lean years of WW II, and she brings poetic touches to the production. The play opens with Sabina unpacking her suitcase and her memories. "I'll carry this the rest of my life," she says, picking up the case; the lights dim and the play leads us into those memories that she can never put down. When Sabina thinks, her mother or father appear half seen behind a screen, and enter her consciousness.

Nayna Ramey has designed a set that is flexible elegant and metaphorical. A series of horizontal planes suggest manifold dislocations. Suspended panels are both opaque and transparent in the shifting world of Nazi informants, and young saplings are locked in winter. When the set must transform to the opulent Maximilian Hotel in Regensburg, the haunt of SS officers, a massive curtain drops, large windows descend, and a red carpet defines the hotel lobby.

An outstanding technical team contributes to the success of Ramey's set and audience understanding of the scene changes. Marcus Dilliard's lighting turns the open spaces of the stage into the cramped, under-lit room in a ghetto, the inviting coziness of Frau Justyna's kitchen, a train compartment and a resonant Catholic Church.

Just as essential is C. Andrew Mayer's sound design. He brings the sound of a moving train on stage, the grinding rumble of distant warfare, the lament of a Jewish clarinet and, in Poland, a hint of Klezmer music. His sound design supports the changing scenes and infuses the stage with the breath of life.

Jeannie Galioto dresses the cast in period clothes in a palette of tans and browns. Some could show more shabbiness to suggest constant hard wear.

Hiding is an another laurel for Obolenski of Lobster Alice fame. The playwright draws strong characters, she finds humor (even in darkness), and she expresses the daily dread of discovery. The one note that feels consciously literary is the grandmother's story of the wolf that crops up again later in Sabina's dramatic nightmare.

Sabina says of this piece of world history at play's end, "We mustn't forget." The Great American History Theatre's fine production of Hiding is memorable in its own right. And it will help younger generations to not forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

Hiding in the Open March 27 - April 25. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Friday - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. $25 - $27. The Great American History Theatre, 30, East Tenth Street, St. Paul. Tickets: 651-292-4323. www.historytheatre.com.


Photo: Erik Paulson



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Elizabeth Weir



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