The Manhattan Theater Club concludes its 23rd season with a compelling, if imperfect, play featuring three utterly haunting performances — precisely the kind of productionthat has helped earn this company its well-deserved stature.
Diane Samuels’ “Kindertransport” premiered last year in London and is here staged sympathetically and extremely cleanly by the original director, Soho Theater Company artistic director Abigail Morris. The title refers to a short-lived program — it lasted from November 1938 to the following September — by which some 10,000 German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian children were sent by train to foster homes in England, most of them never to see their parents again. Samuels is interested in what it means to have been this particular kind of Holocaust survivor and what kind of people those children grew up to be.
“Kindertransport” is set in the 1980s, in a London attic where Faith (Mary Mara) is choosing items to take with her as she prepares to set out on her own; she’s joined by her stiff, reserved mother, Evelyn (Dana Ivey), and a grandmother, Lil (Patricia Kilgarriff), who is almost garrulous by comparison. John Lee Beatty’s spacious setting is soon populated also by ghosts — of the young Evelyn, whose real name was Eva (Alanna Ubach), and her radiant mother, Helga (Jane Kaczmarek), a bourgeois German calmly preparing to send her daughter away, calmly assuming they will soon be reunited.
That reunion doesn’t take place for more than four decades, by which time Helga, an Auschwitz survivor, is a different kind of ghost, and Eva/Evelyn has been thoroughly Anglicized. The play works dreamily, harrowingly to the climactic confrontation between mother and daughter, and it’s made unforgettable by these two actresses: Ivey, a master of playing emotion so repressed it seems to have distorted her facial bones, and Kaczmarek, who portrays pain so subtly you’re hardly aware the performance is ripping you apart. Add to that the touching work of young Ubach, in a performance drenched in equal portions of sadness and optimism, and you have an experience not easily forgotten.
Not enough of Samuels’ dramaturgy matches that stunning confrontation; it’s occasionally downright crude, and the symbolism of an all-purpose villain called the Ratcatcher (Michael Gaston) is admittedly heavy-handed. But director Morris has taken a complex work and set it unfolding with grace and simplicity, and she’s well served in that regard by Beatty, lighting designer Don Holder and costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Along with an extraordinary company, they have turned a tale about loss — of childhood, of faith and, ultimately, of soul — into a charged and memorable experience.