To run or not to run?
That’s the question that torments all people trapped in countries sliding into war or already embroiled in military conflicts. It tortured the Jews in 1930s Germany, just as it haunts Syrians today. Should we try to escape — or are we better off hanging on? Three of the four characters in Alan Breindel’s new play, “Through the Darkness,” now at the Workshop Theater on West 36th Street, chose to run and kept running, staying a few steps ahead of the Nazis till the end of the war. The fourth hung on and got lucky. And as we know from all the Holocaust survivor stories we’ve heard, luck matters just as much as anything.
In his first play, Breindel, who lives in New Jersey, allows the two men and two women to tell their stories, with only minimal interruption from a fifth figure, the Writer (Jeff Dickson), who acts as narrator and steps in to speak as several other characters when necessary. The four span the social and economic strata of Europe’s pre-war Jews. Simon, the son of a poor peddler, recognizing the danger when his neighbor casually said that he couldn’t wait until the Germans arrived to kill the Jews, set out on a long journey that took him to Belarus and then deep into Russia, all the way to Siberia. Clara, another Polish Jew, had the good fortune to be blonde and blue-eyed; passing as a Christian, she also escaped to the Soviet Union. Helen, the daughter of a comfortably middle-class family in Lodz, was sent to the Lodz ghetto with her mother, where she remained for most of the war. Peter is the son of a wealthy German manufacturer, who managed to get his two sons to England and then the whole family to the United States. His story is a reminder that the rich have resources in any circumstance that are unavailable to others.
Breindel formed these composite characters from many conversations he had with Holocaust survivors, a process sparked when he moved next door to a particularly chatty man in the 1980s. That neighbor probably inspired the character of Simon, who announces early in the play, “I knew when to run.” As acted by Robert Meskin, Simon is the most fully developed of the four, and the one who adds some humor to the narrative. Young and strong, he moves from collective farm to hideout and eventually to the Polish army in an almost picaresque series of events. Helen (Emily Zacharias) survives the ghetto and then Auschwitz through grit and perhaps her good looks. She hints at her mother’s urging to get more food through her charms: “Did Mama know the cost of the bread?” Helen seems the most psychologically damaged of the group, acknowledging that some part of her died and cannot be revived.
Breindel treats these stories with the respect they deserve, but his delicacy reminds us that survivor stories are often self-censored, not necessarily to make the tellers appear more heroic, but to shield the memory of others and to protect the sensitivities of the listener. “Through the Darkness” is a straightforward, moving telling of the Holocaust experiences of four characters, but it is not a deep examination of human character under unimaginable duress.
Peter (Alex Dmitriev) adjusts to life in America, only to be drafted and end up in a POW camp. There his fluency in German puts him in greater danger than the other prisoners are in. Clara (Tracy Newirth) survives thanks to the kindness and protection of people she meets on her journey. The Russians were especially good to her, she notes; not the Ukrainians or the Belarusians, though. That sentiment echoes many survivors’ feelings.
Directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby, “Through the Darkness” benefits from its fine cast and from the directness of its presentation. Although we have all heard many of these stories before, each one is unique and memorable, even when they have been condensed, combined, and dramatized. The least we can do for the survivors left among us is to listen.