By Sarah Downs
Treblinka, Buchenwald, Dachau – the names strike fear in our hearts, as well they should. Thousands of camps like these – prison camps, concentration camps and extermination camps — dotted the countryside in the various countries Hitler invaded during World War II. In her memoir A Will To Live, Helena Weinrauch relives the dreadful years from 1939–1945 during which she went on a terrifying journey through three such camps, in a veritable trifecta of misery. She learned the true meaning of evil and of strength – the strength to survive the Holocaust despite terrible odds, the strength of character and a passion for life.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, she was all of 16 years old. Her life changed in an instant. One moment she had a family; the next she was alone. Danger lurked everywhere. As a Jewish person, she stood right in the cross hairs of that danger. The primary target in Hitler’s plan to exterminate ‘undesirables’ (which included people deemed “defective,” either mentally or physically, as well as homosexuals, Slavs and Gypsies), Jews suffered on a massive scale.
Masha King takes on the role of Helena Weinrauch in this astonishing one-woman show. She is riveting. In her physical grace, slim frame and clear-eyed intelligence, Ms. King possesses a steely delicacy reminiscent of Ida Lupino. She gives a natural, sophisticated performance in a very demanding role. The amount of memorization alone gives one pause.
Framed in memory, the play begins with Helena recuperating post war in a Swedish hospital, mute and furtive as she lies in her bed; mute from trauma and in her distrust of others, furtive in her established in the habit of hoarding food after years of starvation in the camps. It is 1945. She was liberated from Bergen Belsen mere weeks ago. Gazing out at the landscape Helena begins her conversation with the audience, drawing us slowly back in time to that day in 1939 when her childhood ended. King is as utterly believable as a 16 year-old girl as she is the more mature Helena, moving fluidly from one memory to the next.
As she warms to her narrative, Helena begins to move. She weaves through David Henderson’s simple set of a few pieces of period furniture and projected backdrops, creating fleeting micro-worlds along the way – here her office, there the interrogation chamber, there a railcar crowded with prisoners. Through posture, vocal color and gesture, Ms. King brings each world to life.
Director Rick Hamilton utilizes every corner of the stage. He maximizes the narrative reach through the selective use of voice overs, adding a conversational dynamic in which King interacts with other remembered characters though she is the only person onstage. This opens us to imagine even greater space and passage of time, rather like a verbal infinity pool.
Strong lighting design by Michael Abrams also transforms the space, whether it’s a wash of haunting blues, or a tapestry of cheerful red leaves carpeting the floor, or even a small rectangle of light in the darkness of a tiny window to a tiny prison cell. Debbi Hobson’s excellent period costumes evoke the era concisely and accurately in simple lines and patterns, down to Helena’s shoes. Throughout, Greg Russ’s sound design punctuates key moments – a shot, the sound of truck wheels in the dirt, the stomp of marching feet. Haunting melodies of popular tunes of the 1930’s float in the background pre and post show, gently easing us into and out of the drama.
At 2 hours and 15, with one 10-minute intermission, the piece began to feel a bit long, although there is so much story to pack in there, one can well understand the urge to include it all. Perhaps it was just because I was hungry to learn what happened to Ms. Weinrauch after the war. Indeed, we are rewarded for our patience. The sound of voice of the woman herself proved a balm to the ear. Yes! – it’s real; she’s real; she did survive – and she has a message for the world. So bring Kleenex; you’re going to cry.
At the Chain Theatre (32 W. 36th Street, 3rd Floor, NYC); limited run August 24th – September 16th. Tickets are $35, available HERE or at www.chaintheatre.org. Runtime: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.