By the time she goes into hiding, Nelly's escapism has become transformed into near-psychotic denial. But it is here that Swados' theatrical storytelling finally comes to life.

The Secret Window

Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays and the Philadelphia International Theatre Festival for Children, last week at the Annenberg Center.

At the beginning of playwright-composer Elizabeth Swados' new theater piece, The Secret Window, one of the company members announces that the text will be spoken in a wide variety of languages. (And, just to prove the point, the other actors translate the announcement into as many different tongues.) "You'll get it," she adds, "and it'll be fun."

We do. And it isn't.

The play (co-commissioned by the Annenberg Center's Festival Theatre for New Plays and its Children's Theatre Festival, and co-produced with Het Waterhuis of Rotterdam) tells its story by the simplest of theatrical, narrative and musical means.

Based on the Holocaust memoirs of survivor Nelly S. Toll, currently a resident of Cherry Hill, the personal story is rather simple: during the Nazi occupation of Lwow (then Poland, now Ukraine), Toll, as a child, spent 13 months hiding in the basement-window light well of a Christian family. But the background story is hardly simple -- the larger story of Polish Jews during the war, including the invasions by the Red Army and the Nazis, the creation of the Lwow ghetto, deportations by boxcar to the death camps, and the family's various strategies to save Nelly, first by having her pretend to be Christian and then by putting her into hiding.

The narrative is structured as a series of pictures accompanied by a soundscape of snatches of melody, sung and rhythmically breathed by the company, accompanied by a few musical instruments (fiddle, accordion, guitar, clarinet) played by members of the cast. We see the family lighting the Chanukah candles and singing Chanukah songs, Red Army soldiers confiscating property and dancing to Russian melodies, Storm Troopers on the march and herding Jews into the ghetto, Jews operating a black market, etc. There's hardly any dialogue or lyrics (in English, anyway), and when there is it's simplistic ("Now be careful all of you/ Times are hard for every Jew").

Through all this, Nelly (Susan McKey) is eager to fit in, eager to please, eager to have fun ("I have to make it fun again; I have to make it beautiful again"). She dances with the Russian soldiers, even while they are accusing her parents of being bourgeois; she climbs to the roof, marches in place and practices her Nazi salutes while the Nazis march into town, with banners waving and the murderous sound of machine guns; she wants to believe that the statuettes of the Virgin Mary have miraculously saved her from a Nazi soldier, even while her adoptive mother (Marielle van Sauers) is kicking her out of the house.

By the time she goes into hiding (with her real mother [Marline Williams] being sexually harassed by their host [Kees van Loenen]), Nelly's escapism has become transformed into a grotesque form of near-psychotic denial. But it is here that Swados' simplistic imagery and naive cartoon-like theatrical storytelling finally comes to life. Equipped with her paintbox, Nelly is able to transform her private world into a world of color and stick-figure flowers. With a chalk outline on the floor, she can turn her yellow star into a daisy; with some cans of paint, she can paint herself into the center of a yellow-and-orange blossom. And she can magically transform the stage into a paintbox-world of her imagination: friends and enemies alike sprout primary-color hats and vests, the boxcar blocks of Tryntsje Bakkum's set are awash in color, and everyone sings and dances to a jubilantly naive folk song.

The Secret Window is episodic and simplistic; and though it only lasts an hour it feels long. We get little or no sense of the physical facts of Nelly's story (how long she was in hiding, how often and for how long she needed to crouch in the window, how the mother dealt with her assailant, how mother and daughter were liberated); and, moreover, we never get a sense of the physical realities of Nelly's secret hiding place (how big it was, how it felt, how it smelled).

But in those moments of children's-book colors and nursery-rhyme jingles (whether created by Swados or by Het Waterhuis director Roel Twijnstra), or in moments of sadness (the deported father [David Ingram], dressed in white atop a boxcar, playing the clarinet in plaintive counterpoint to the folk-song jingles downstage), The Secret Window is magical.

The production now moves on to Rotterdam, with a possible return engagement in Philadelphia next fall. Some advice, if it does return: bring a childlike attitude, but think twice before you bring young children.

-- Cary M. Mazer