Opening on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Coterie’s play “Hana’s Suitcase: A True Holocaust Mystery” (co-produced with UMKC Theatre) presents the story of the Holocaust from a new angle: the perspective of schoolchildren in Japan.
Based on a true story, which was chronicled in a book by Karen Levine, “Hana’s Suitcase” begins when two Tokyo schoolchildren, Akira and Maiko, become curious about the owner of a suitcase that’s on loan to their local Holocaust Education Center. They know that her name was Hana Brady and she was sent to Auschwitz, but they want to learn who she was, what she liked and what became of her.
The center’s director, Fumiko Ishioka, travels to Prague and begins tracking down connections to Hana. We learn that Hana was interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, that she had a brother and that she died at Auschwitz at the age of 13.
When Fumiko gets in touch with Hana’s brother, who’s still alive and lives in Canada, the play opens up, and Hana’s story comes to life. Akira and Maiko want to learn as much as they can about Hana so they can share her story with all the children of Japan.
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This framing structure doesn’t do as much for the play as it could. Akira and Maiko’s characters feel a little one-note, though younger audiences will probably enjoy them. The beginning of the story feels abrupt; it takes a while to figure out Fumiko’s relationship to the children, and the explanation for how they ended up with the suitcase is never really clarified.
It seems to be important that this play is told from the perspective of Japanese children, but the script never really makes it clear what’s unique about that perspective.
The show hits its stride once Hana and her family take center stage. Josephine Pellow plays Hana with a believable mixture of pathos and vulnerability, and Leah Swank-Miller is vibrant and warm as a variety of characters, notably Hana’s mother and her art teacher at Theresienstadt.
The set, designed by Mark Exline, is minimalistic, with a sliding panel and a couple of tables that perform a variety of functions. Projections designer Jamie Leonard also uses the panels as canvases to project images of Hana and other victims, as well as examples of drawings the children at the camp made in a secret art class.
As an educational story, “Hana’s Suitcase” hits all the necessary points: the persecutions, the arrests, the prison camps, Auschwitz. As a bridge to the past and a witness to how the Holocaust affected children, it does its job. It can be a good introduction to students who haven’t learned much about those events yet.
It won’t be replacing “Schindler’s List” or “The Diary of Anne Frank,” because the short running time doesn’t allow for great depth of character or story. But art about the Holocaust is nearly always worthwhile, and for its efforts to keep the memory of one victim alive, “Hana’s Suitcase” is admirable.