Coming To See Aunt Sophie…a theatre review by Deb Meyer

August 3, 2015 by Deb Meyer
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“Where was G-d during the Holocaust?” asks the filmmaker to legendary Polish Catholic hero Jan Karski, in Arthur Feinsod’s new play Coming To See Aunt Sophie.The more important question, poses Karski, is rather, “where was man?” This hits at the very core of this moving play, based on the incredible true story of Jan Karski’s extraordinary mission to help save Polish Jewry and attempt to end the Holocaust.

Alan Lovell, Graeme McRae, Beth Aubrey & Tim McGarry: Image by Dan Blumenthal

Alan Lovell, Graeme McRae, Beth Aubrey & Tim McGarry: Image by Dan Blumenthal

Set in 1978 in Karski’s home in Washington, where he is a revered professor at Georgetown University, the play, which shifts between 1926 and 1943, opens with him breaking his vow of silence and being interviewed on film – the filmmaker based on the acclaimed chronicler of the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann.

Impeccably dressed in his customary suit and tie, the visibly distressed Karski recounts his harrowing missions during World War II. As an international courier in the Polish Underground, “prepared to risk everything to save the Jews”, he is tortured by the Gestapo, attempts suicide, escapes a Nazi hospital and is smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp to witness and record the Nazi atrocities. Escaping Nazi-occupied Europe to inform Allied leaders about the Holocaust, Karski eventually secures a meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt – with devastating results.

Playwright Arthur Feinsod has constructed a superbly written, highly researched and powerful play that aims to stay as true as possible to the historical record. Coming To See Aunt Sophie (the title referring to Karski’s secret code during underground missions) is based on a range of sources, from Karski’s own book, Story of a Secret State and different interviews of the man, to conversations with Kaya Mirecka-Ploss, his closest friend and confidante in his final years (Karski died in 2000).

As a Professor of Theatre, currently at Indiana State University, Feinsod’s vast knowledge in the field is exemplified by his detailed notes in the script regarding the plays sets, costumes, props and direction, from wanting “little scenery and technology” to “using the fewest possible props (so) the faster the action can move and the more it parallels the courier’s life, which requires possessing nothing”.

On the back of directing and co-producing Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, also co-produced with Encounters@Shalom, internationally recognised theatre director and producer Moira Blumenthal has stayed true to Feinsod’s wishes. In directing Coming To See Aunt Sophie, Blumenthal has brought to fruition a very tight and stripped back production, allowing the focus to stay squarely on the power of Karski’s story and the many characters brought to life.

With Blumenthal’s vast experience, she has brought together a superb cast. Playing the 64-year-old reflective Karski, one would never suspect Alan Lovell to have such experience in stand-up comedy. With a strong visual presence and commanding voice, though a little too staccato at times, Lovell well depicts the older, dignified man, whose slick appearance belies his inner torment at not being able to save more lives and his struggle to find peace with his younger self. One of the most memorable and moving scenes in the play, involves the older Karski recollecting his devastating meeting with a four-year old child in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Graeme McRae beautifully plays the courageous and determined young Karski, from the age of 12 to 29, with sensitivity, poignancy and a perfect Polish accent. His character’s frustration and disbelief, is palpable when he’s sideswiped by Allied leaders, including the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Supreme Court Judge Felix Frankfurter, who refuse to believe his graphic accounts.

Tim McGarry plays close to thirty male roles, showing remarkable skill and versatility. With flawless accents and swift character changes, ranging from a distressed Polish man whose family are in the Warsaw ghetto, to playing the larger than life American president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The scene that takes place on July 28, 1943, with Karski famously meeting FDR for an hour and twenty minutes, is pivotal to the play and a confronting scene, for both the audience as well as the older Karski, whose personal account of the extermination of Polish Jews and the imperative of the Allied nations to help, fell on deaf ears.

The only female in the cast, the highly talented Beth Aubrey, plays twenty roles in the play, from Karski’s inspiring mother, who instills in her son a strong sense of justice, to his emotionally tormented wife Pola, to the unrelenting Gestapo. Aubrey’s physical and vocal transformations are superb and her accents flawless. Nick Curnow, the dialect coach deserves special praise.

The large stage, effectively set by designer Victor Kalka, is littered with up-turned, timber furniture, creating unsettling, angular lines resembling the ruins and rubble of war-torn Poland – an allusion to a world “far beyond anything in Dante’s imagination”.

With its weighty themes, the play can be appreciated by both adults and young adult audiences. If the recent production of The Diary of Anne Frank at the New Theatre in Sydney was rated PG (my own rating), then I’d give Coming To See Aunt Sophie an M rating – for teenagers mature enough to handle the difficult subject matter and distressing verbal recollections, though far less graphic than in Karski’s book.

We are fortunate to have the calibre of Moira Blumenthal and Encounters @Shalom flying the flag of Jewish theatre in Sydney. This play, however, touches on important themes significant to a much more diverse crowd. The need to stand up and speak up for the just treatment of ALL humanity, irrespective of religion, culture and nationality is a message to heed across all people. And in the current climate of Australian race relations, how very, very timely.

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Coming to See Aunt Sophie

By Arthur Feinsod

Directed by Moira Blumenthal

Produced by Michael Misrachi and Michael and Isabel Shur, in association with Encounters @Shalom

Fig Tree Theatre, UNSW, 4 High Street Kensington, Gate 4

Until August 23, 2015

Performances: Mon-Thu, Sat 7:30pm, Sun 2pm & 7.30pm

Tickets: $36 to $45

To book tickets contact www.encounters.edu.au

 

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