Is the Holocaust becoming forgettable? At first, I questioned Lisa Ann Goldsmith's director's notes about the need for "Holocaust education," as printed in the program for Prime Stage Theatre's world premiere of The Devil's Arithmetic. But then, I'm old — old enough to have grown up with children of camp survivors, and to have had the privilege of learning some of the stories first-hand.
But in an age that has cheapened the Holocaust into a metaphor for anything more fretful than a bad hair day, I applaud the company's decision to commission a new play, by Barry Kornhauser, based upon the 1988 book by Jane Yolen. The project is ambitious, not least because of the difficulty for a family-friendly theater to approach the historical horrors. The magic-realism plot is sprawling, with a large multi-generational cast and unusual demands on make-up/wig designer Ricky Gindlesberger and crew.
Yolen begins in "present-day" suburbia (i.e. 1988), when it's credible that the privileged, spoiled granddaughter of Holocaust survivors would be a fairly young girl. Hannah lacks piety as well as respect for her elders and their past. At an appropriate point in the family's Passover dinner, she is sucked through a door in the space-time continuum and dropped into a Polish shtetl at a very nasty time: right before Nazi soldiers transport every Jew in town to Auschwitz. The struggle begins. No plot spoilers.
The 14-year-old shoulders of Julia Zoratto are amazingly up to the heavy-duty demands on the central character. Hannah whines, stumbles and then credibly grows into a wiser, stronger and much more pleasant person. Zoratto makes her a truly winning heroine. Other notable young ladies in the 1942 scenario are Chelsea Calfo as the experienced survivor; Lily Lauver and Victoria Perl as playmates turned prisoners; and Megan Krull as the tragic "second best" friend. Dana Hardy heads the adult cast as the mother (1988) and aunt (1942) who teaches Hannah about duty and laughter.
Johnmichael Bohach's set beautifully evokes the everyday pathways and nightmarish railways the characters follow. Yes, the Holocaust has to be somewhat sanitized for modern audiences, but The Devil's Arithmetic does not prettify the pain.