By R. Jones
“We keep these people alive by saving the letters.” Based on the book Sala’s Gift, the Journey Company and F.A.B. Women at the Barrow Group Theatre Company vividly bring to life the true story of one girl’s horrific, yet courageous, story of survival through seven different Nazi labor camps; we follow her brave determination to keep her letters, pictures and birthday cards from being destroyed at the cruel hands of the Nazi army.
The play, Letters to Sala, written with loving grace by Arlene Hutton, is set as a series of vignettes in present day (2005) and memories of the past (1941-1945). Director Eric Nightengale does a wonderful job seamlessly connecting Sala’s past with her present. Her memories take shape, and we are transported to her younger self as she is taken away from her mother (a poignant and heartfelt Tamara Flannagan) and sent off to the camps. Nightengale also provides the lighting to hauntingly invoke the passage of time and mood, truly becoming another character in the piece. Also stunning is Janine McCabe’s costume design, perfectly invoking the time period. And Sean Gorski’s simple yet effective set design easily transforms the audience to different locations, from the flip of a bench to a line of laundry hung out to dry.
Anita Keal as Sala grounds the play beautifully and provides the anchor of the story. With a subtle nuance and charm, we fall in love her. Until she is about to go in for heart surgery and unfold an unspeakable secret, Sala’s family is completely unaware of the terrors she endured as a young girl. Along with Alice Jankell, Laura Kamin, and Kate McGonigle, this quartet of skilled actresses give the play its present day spirit as we glimpse into Sala’s past.
Joining Keal at the very heart and soul of this piece is Britian Seibert as young Sala. She is, to put it mildly, a revelation. Beautiful, spunky, passionate and strong, Seibert brings to mind Jo from Little Women in her spirit. From the naive girl going off to the labor camps ensuring her loved ones that “it’ll be an adventure,” to the strong woman who emerges from the horrors endured, Seibert unearths every nuance of this character brilliantly. The real life Sala was said to have attended the preview the night before. I can’t imagine her having anything but love and accolades to shower upon her onstage self, for this was clearly a labor of love. Seibert is luminous.
Anne Bates brings an undeniable presence and strength as Ala Gertner, beautifully fleshing out her character and immediately forming a bond with Sala. Andrew Ash makes a very strong impression as Chaim Kaufman who falls for Sala in the labor camps, giving the character humor and pathos. Ben Becher cuts a dashing figure as Sala’s rogue “gypsy” Harry Haubenstock, with charisma and talent to spare. Lila Donnolo gives subtlety and depth to Sala’s sister Raizel and Rachel Casparian is a breath of fresh air as the plucky and loving Elfriede Pachte. However, pointing out certain performances seems unfair, as every member of this ensemble beautifully connected with the material, giving their own individuality and voice to each role. There was not a weak link in the bunch.
There was one thing that struck this writer, however, throughout the evening. Although it is a story of incredible grief, unspeakable tragedy and loss, there was always a spark of hope in the bright young eyes of Sala. No matter what she went through or what she endured, she was a fighter, and did not let her spirit burn out, nor the voice of her loved ones be muted. That is the beauty and the magic of Letters to Sala. And that is the definition of a true heroine.