Hana's Suitcase packed with powerful plot

Touching story, impressive set propel Holocaust drama

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Jennifer Dzialosynski and Matthew Gorman from Hana's Suitcase

Courtesy of Claus Andersen

THIS SUITCASE HOLDS A LOT OF SECRETS. Jennifer Dzialosynski and Matthew Gorman on stage as Hana Brady and young George Brady in the Grand Theatre's production of Hana's Suitcase.

Hana’s Suitcase
Directed by: Susan Ferley
Starring: Burgandy Code, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Jan Filips, Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, Gil Garratt, Matthew Gorman, Manami Hara, Janet Lo

3.5 stars

When you open Hana’s Suitcase, be prepared to pack your brain full of mystery, history and culture.

Based on the book by Karen Levine, Hana’s Suitcase tells the true tale of how one girl’s suitcase leads two young children to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust. It all begins when a Japanese woman who runs a Holocaust Education Centre receives a suitcase from Auschwitz. When two children at the centre discover the suitcase belonged to a little girl named Hana Brady, they become determined to learn what happened to her during the Second World War.

The story’s power propels it from start to finish. The play perfectly mixes the past and present by combining scenes of Hana’s experiences during the war while the information is simultaneously being uncovered by the Japanese children in the present. For example, while the children Akira and Fumiko read a letter containing information about Hana, a scene from Hana’s life is simultaneously being acted out next to them. The two worlds are intertwined onstage, allowing the audience to be drawn into this touching tale.

Aside from its story, the play’s most magnificent aspect is the set. Set designer John Dinning’s talent is reflected within his beautiful, but functional design. The set consists of several simple sliding doors that allow characters from the past to smoothly pop into the present. The set also moves items from side to side and from back to front, making the transitions between past and present appear seamless. Its malleable nature convinces the audience that characters are in a variety of locations, from a train to a museum.

The set further adds an emotional twist by including a screen above it. At specified moments, the screen displays real images of Hana and some of the drawings she made during the war. The drawings’ simplicity and sadness is enough to evoke tears and the constant use of hauntingly beautiful music further stirs up emotion.

The play’s star is Filips, who plays a number of characters, including the elder George Brady. He has the subtlety the other actors lack. He strikes sadness into the audience simply by staring sadly at Hana’s suitcase. Filips brings his characters to life; when he speaks, he speaks as though he truly is his character.

Also putting in fairly strong performances are Gorman, who plays the younger George Brady, and Dzialoszynski, who plays Hana. Dzialoszynski won the audience over with her trembling voice and child-like innocence. Gorman put on a perfect little boy bravado, making it hard to believe he’s not really a young kid looking out for his sister.

The play’s weakest point is actress Hara, who plays the Japanese women Maiko. Her performance was flat and lacked the subtle nuances needed to make her character believable. She overdid her emotions, yelling when it was unnecessary and smiling when it was inappropriate. By toning her character down, she could have better captured the audience’s imagination.

The actors playing the Japanese children Akira (Garcia) and Fumiko (Lo) suffered from similar problems. While they were more believable than Hara, they also struggled to give their characters a range of emotion, making it hard to recognize when they were truly touched or upset by something. However, while Lo had difficulty acting like a kid, Garcia managed to be believable most of the time.

Despite some struggling by its actors, Hana’s Suitcase is still a play worth seeing. The story itself makes it a powerful reminder of how lucky we are and how important learning history can be.

Hana’s Suitcase is playing at The Grand Theatre until March 1.

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