|Jane Elias in her one-woman play, “Do This One Thing for Me. Michael Priest Photography|
Jane Elias is a very good daughter.
Her one-woman play, “Do This One Thing for Me,” now at the TBG Theatre on West 36th Street, is a love letter to her father, a Greek Jew who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Whether the play has relevance to a general audience is another matter.
Elias is an actor and writer whose work has been developed with Naked Angels, Access Theater, Core Artist Ensemble, and Stony Brook Southampton. While touching in parts, “Do This One Thing for Me,” written and performed by Elias and directed by Tracy Bersley, feels like a work still in development. Elias has not yet translated her personal experience into a more universal one, or perhaps the play is not personal enough to become more than one woman’s story. It often feels that Elias is skimming over the surface of her emotions, hesitant to descend into depths that may be murky or frightening. Her father seems like a genuinely nice man, but a play should do more than express the anodyne sentiments appropriate to a family celebration.
On stage, Elias switches smoothly from her father’s persona to her own as she tells a familiar story of overprotective parents and guilt-ridden children of survivors. Elias’s father doesn’t see anything unreasonable in expecting his adult daughter to call him every morning just to announce that she’s still alive. “Can’t you do this one thing and call me every day?” he demands. And he feels perfectly comfortable reminding her that she isn’t getting any younger and should be married and a mother already. His fondest wish is to dance at her wedding. This doesn’t make him stand out from the crowd of other anxious parents of artistic young adults who want them to settle down already.
What makes him unusual, of course, is his life story. For the first half of the 65-minute play, we learn a lot about it as Elias recreates her father’s oral Holocaust history. Although we have heard many Holocaust stories, the details of horror never fail to mesmerize. Elias’s father was 15 when he arrived at the concentration camp with his brother and cousins in 1944. The teenagers somehow managed to stay alive, through hustle and luck, until the day they were scheduled to be killed. Miraculously, that was the day that British troops liberated the camp.
The second half of the play veers off to the adult March of the Living trip Elias took in 2010. While she initially conceived this as a journey she and her father would go on together, she insists on going even after he refuses. Elias cleverly captures the varying degrees of self-righteousness and obliviousness among the guides, educators, and members of the international group visiting Auschwitz, but she achieves the true purpose of her play when she recites the names of her large, extended Greek Jewish family at the death camp. She reports this communal kaddish to her father with genuine satisfaction and pride.
This is the one thing that she has done for him, even though it isn’t the thing he asked for.
It is 70 years since the end of World War II, yet the Holocaust retains its dark power to consume our imagination. Elias is a young member of a generation of children of those who survived that nightmare and one of a large group who have described their experience through theater and literature. Soon, we will hear from grandchildren and then from great-grandchildren. This is a story we will be telling for a very long time.