By Oline H. Cogdill
“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing.’’
That quote, attributed to 20th-century German philosopher Hannah Arendt and, in other variations, to 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, among others, is often used to explain how ordinary people, supposedly good people, can allow evil to exist.
It’s usually used in relation to incidents so horrible they are barely comprehensible, often in relation to the Holocaust.
And it’s a fitting statement for playwright Jenny Connell Davis’ harrowing drama The Messenger, making its world premiere in a superb production, impressively directed by William Hayes, at Palm Beach Dramaworks through Dec. 24.
The Messenger is a Holocaust story, and one woman’s survival while also telling of racial discrimination toward Asians, brilliantly correlating antisemitism with anti-Asian sentiments. During its approximately 100 minutes without intermission, The Messenger also delves into how racism can seep into lives, micro-aggression, parenting issues, teen angst, hero worship and history, among others.
The taut, four-character drama revolves around Hungarian Georgia Gabor (a mesmerizing Margery Lowe) who lost her entire family during the Holocaust. Georgia is, she says, “a Holocaust survivor. And no—I don’t have a number on my arm.” What she has is a chilling story, having been captured three times by the Nazis and escaped three times. Georgia, based on a real person who died in 1994, managed to elude capture and the concentration camps. She came to the United States in 1948, raised a family and began teaching math in 1969, staying for 21 years in the San Marino Unified School District in California.
The other three characters are identified not by name but by the years during which their stories are based. The Messenger moves in a non-lineal time line, moving seamlessly back and forth from the various women’s stories to Georgia recounting her young life during WWII to her contemporary life.
The characters are 1969, (Gracie Winchester), a curator at The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Angela Gulner portrays 1993, the mother of one of Gabor’s students and a volunteer at The Huntington. Anne Fang is 2020, a recent high school graduate and former volunteer at The Huntington. Each of these actresses, along with Lowe, deliver highly nuanced performances that immediately grab the audience.
Days before the school’s holiday breaks, Georgia would tell her students the horrid conditions she endured during WWII—finding her family dead, hiding under mattresses, starving, capture by the Nazis, and, later the Russian, soldiers. Georgia becomes “the messenger” for making her students aware of this history. (The title “The Messenger” has myriad meanings during the play.)
Georgia’s stories rankle 1993 who considers herself a liberal, an open-minded progressive but she doesn’t want her 13-year-old “sweet girl” exposed to these real, personal tales of the Holocaust. 1993 means well for her daughter, but she also is denying the child the serious reality of life and compassion for others and their experiences. 1993 also is forgetting that her daughter, who comes across as a brat, is exposed to violent tales posing as entertainment every day.
When swastikas and other anti-Semitic obscenities begin showing up, 1993 doesn’t understand how that could happen in such a good community. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” she says. Yet, keeping silence about bigotry, allowing her daughter to giggle about these symbols allows this to occur.
The adage “never forget” applied to the Holocaust also can be amended to add “just ignore it: or “we don’t want to hear it.”
Curator 1969 loves her job, happily delving into the research it affords her. But her discoveries of a vital historic document thought lost and a batch of letters exposing a war hero’s extreme anti-Semitism send her reeling. The Huntington’s decision on what to do with these is unfathomable to her.
2020 is on the receiving end of anti-Asian bigotry, unsure why it happened and how she should react to this personal rant. Does she say something or keep quiet as her parents urge? Near the beginning of The Messenger, 2020 laments that history is boring. “…why do I need to know any of this stuff, why does any of this matter when everything is so, so BORING and everyone we’re reading about is dead?”
But she will learn that history is anything but boring—full of violence, betrayal, bigotry inflicted on real people. History is terrifying and we should be afraid of the horrible things that have happened through the centuries and that they will, and are, happing again.
The Messenger is played against Anne Mundell’s striking, monochromatic set with its avant-garde tower of papers, notebooks, lawyer boxes stacked to look as if it might topple at any moment, spilling out the vital research, letters and personal information contained in those pages. Mundell is now Dramaworks’ resident scenic designer.
Further setting the tone are Kirk Bookman’s lighting, Brian O’Keefe’s costumes and Roger Arnold’s sound, in which bombs, rolling tanks and marching boots occasionally interrupt the once peaceful silence with war noise. Adam J. Thompson’s video design vividly show a young artist honing her skills.
The Messenger is part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere and will be independently produced at two other U.S. theaters—one in Minneapolis and one in Austin—in the coming months. The Messenger was commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks Producing Artistic Direction William Hayes and developed at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
Hayes met the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivor Georgia Gabor (1930-1994), who told him the story of her mother. Hayes then read Gabor’s autobiography and watched a 1984 interview about her Holocaust experience. He brought the idea of basing a play on Gabor’s life to Jenny Connell Davis, who is now Palm Beach Dramaworks’ first resident playwright. A brief history of The Messenger and some testimonies from Gabor’s students are featured in the Dramaworks’ program.
In the program, Hayes states that he believes The Messenger is “the most important play we’ve ever produced” at Dramaworks. Audiences no doubt will agree with him about this intelligent, thought-provoking play.
The Messenger runs through Dec. 24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are at 8 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Run time is approximately 90 to 100 minutes without intermission. Tickets start at $89. For tickets call (561) 514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.