Review: Hana's Suitcase

LOTR isn't the only world premiere opening in the T-dot this month.

Hana's Suitcase, currently showing at LKTYP, tells the story of a young Holocaust victim whose story is uncovered by the curator of the Tokyo Holocaust Centre after she borrows some artifacts from the Auschwitz museum.

Both a radio show on the CBC, and later a book, the play is the story's latest incarnation.

Emil Sher adapts the story for the stage, and his script focuses on the interaction between the gradual revelation of the story and its effect on the Japanese children as they learn about Hana. Although some of the dialogue is flat and simplistic, there is much that feels painfully (and at times delightfully) real.

Alan MacInnis' direction and staging is careful and often touching - Hana (Jessica Greenberg) makes silent appearances throughout the first act, foreshadowing the detailed action to come. The sound and set design are particularly impressive, understated and affecting without distracting from the power of the story, which is largely true.


Greenberg is the heart and soul of the play - her portrayal of Hana is note perfect. Hana is young and bright and compelling, the interest in her as a character makes her fate all the more tragic. Part of the reason she glows so brightly is the strength of the rest of the cast.

Paul Dunn as George (the younger) shares a tangible bond with Hana, he balances the weight and responsibility of an older brother with the fear and frustration of a child (who, over the course of the play, must mature quickly - Dunn masters the subtle transitions).

Sarah Orenstein is magnificent in every role she plays - as a member of the ensemble she appears as Mrs. Brady, two or three museum curators, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis (an artist and Hana's art teacher in the ghetto), and a faceless victim. I cannot overstate how talented she is, to bring all these characters fully and vibrantly to life, all entirely distinct personalities, with the mere change of a hairstyle or sweater.

Jean Yoon as Fumiko Ishioka holds the modern segments of the play together. Unfortunately, she does have to over-compensate for an uneven tone in some of her dialogue, and that of the two Japanese children, Akira (Richard Lee) and Maiko (Siu Ta). Her mild demeanor and concern for her students is deeply opposed to her desperation in Europe, which seems vastly overplayed.

Ta's performance is sweet and her delivery is strong, but her character often lacks depth and nuance. Lee, whether by his own choice or the director's, must often overact to justify his dialogue and ends up frequently caricaturing what he shows us in glimpses could be, and should be, a character as compelling as Hana. They're also saddled with way too much exposition, such that they end up sounding like they're giving a class presentation rather than performing in a play.

Lee has the charisma, and Ta the talent, to give much stronger performances. I am inclined to blame the script for their shallowness, but surely MacInnis' otherwise fine direction could have given these key characters more attention.

With his access to Sher, they could have streamlined some of the transitions and cut some of the histrionics and unnecessary 'comic' interlude (where Lee goes on a 'superhero' tangent - it's a drastic shift in tone from the earlier scene and while I understand the inclination to lighten the mood, it ends up cheapening the whole segment).

Doug MacLeod and Eric Trask round out the ensemble, skillfully playing multiple roles including other members of the Brady family, museum curators, Holocaust victims, and survivors.

The story deserves a tighter script, and I wish for the sake of the actors, particularly Ta, Lee, and Yoon, that they had been given less exposition and more character. That said, the play is touching and, though I hate to use a tired phrase, 'important' - because where it succeeds is in revealing not only the tragedy of the Holocaust, but also the experience of children as they learn about the reality of what it was - what horrors we 'civilized' people are capable of.

Lee's best line of dialogue reflects this perfectly - after a particularly upsetting revelation in Hana's story, Akira, clearly upset, tries to go home. As Maiko and Fumiko try to convince him to hear the rest, he cries out "How can we make it not happen again?" Because didn't we all feel the same way when we found out?

Runs at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People until April 27.

You can read the Now review and the Eye review, too.

You can find out more about Hana, and George's family at hanascuitcase.ca, a site run by George's daughter.

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