Story: Hannah Senesh was born in 1921, the only daughter of a Hungarian journalist/playwright and his wife. After her father died when she was six years old, Hannah lived with her mother Catherine and brother Giora in Budapest. An experience with anti-Semitism in her early teens awakened her interest in Zionism. She graduated from high school on the eve of World War II and was thrilled to be accepted into the Agricultural School for Young Women in Nahalal in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Following her education she lived on various kibbutzes in Palestine, where the mundane chores she was assigned proved tedious. Learning about a military unit being organized by the British to parachute behind enemy lines, Hannah enlisted as one of just three women in the 37-soldier outfit.
After months of fighting in Yugoslavia, she entered Hungary, where she was immediately captured. Subsequently she was imprisoned, interrogated and executed for treason at age 23 in November 1944, leaving a legacy of insightful poetry, admirable courage and a passion and commitment to Zionism.
Highlights: Playwright David Schechter’s one-woman show is a beautifully textured and superbly told tale, as evidenced in the richly rewarding presentation now being performed by New Jewish Theatre. Director Kat Singleton and actress Shanara Gabrielle capture the vibrant essence of this singular young woman, whose exploits live on in Israeli history and literature.
Other Info: Schechter’s drama, developed in collaboration with Lori Wilner and adapted from Senesh’s own diaries and poems, is absorbing theater throughout its 90 minutes of stage time, hauntingly etched by Gabrielle. Bracketing her portrayal of the fiery freedom fighter is a pair of Gabrielle's meticulous interpretations of Hannah’s surviving mother, Catherine.
Aided immeasurably by dialect coach Joanna Battles and consultant/language coach Noemi Neidorff, Gabrielle speaks through a thick Hungarian accent as she relates Catherine’s painful reminiscences of her strong-willed daughter. Further enhancing the effect is her wardrobe, carefully designed by costumer Michele Friedman Siler.
Hannah's story is additionally sketched with a background offering video projections of clouds or the lyrical descent of paratroopers into war-torn territory. The projections complement the serene scenic design created by Peter & Margery Spack, who offset a simple desk and chair at stage left with a walkway flanked by tall reeds at stage right, all in front of an austere gray wall emblazoned with Hannah’s name and dates, beneath a series of sheets overhanging the set.
Seth Jackson further enhances the story with some judiciously selected lighting, as do Jenny Smith’s properties (such as Hannah’s rifle), and Zoe Sullivan’s complementary sound design.
Interspersed throughout the compelling story are a series of haunting, evocative tunes composed by Steven Lutvak, with additional contributions by Elizabeth Swados, David Zehavi, Schechter and Senesh, which mirror in soft, focused music Hannah’s heroism.
All of this serves in sturdy support of Gabrielle’s magnificent portrayal. She embodies the essence of a sweetly optimistic schoolgirl as well as the confident young woman who follows her heart to defend her people, even as she laments never experiencing the elusive kiss of a boy. It’s a consistently affecting and riveting performance that never loses focus.
Jimmy Betts adds his own chilling touch in a brief scene as a Nazi soldier who captures Hannah and brings her to prison in the starkest light of reality. Singleton’s direction is sure and steady as she carefully orchestrates Gabrielle’s balletic effort, bolstered by the work’s affecting compositions.
Handsomely told and grandly enacted, Hannah Senesh is a poignant reminder of the never-ending need for bravery and courage in the face of evil, regardless of time or place.
Play: Hannah Senesh
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: December 11, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, 21, 22
Tickets: $35-$39; contact 442-3257, 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb