Impatient, impetuous, imperious are appropriate adjectives to describe the young World War II Hungarian spy/poet Hannah Senesh at the center of John Wooten's play, Hannah, now onstage at Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union. By the time the 90 minutes have flown by, you'll add one more—impressive—to his portrait of this extraordinary 22-year-old who leaves the safety of Palestine to parachute behind enemy lines to help Jews of her native country escape the horrors of the Holocaust. When caught with a radio, she refuses to give up vital codes despite imprisonment, torture and eventual death. (Above: Liz Wisan and Kayla Maisonet in the Premiere Stages at Kean University production of Hannah. Photo by Roy Groething.)
Impressive is also a good word to describe Liz Wisan's portrayal of Hannah. Whether she's arguing with her mother, going off on her own (with a young man named Yoel) to infiltrate Hungarian lines or mouthing off to a high prison official, Wisan's Hannah is a force to be reckoned with. It's true that Wisan looks older than Senesh's 22 years, but one could argue that the real person was part callow youth and part mature woman—an interesting, and perhaps deadly, combination. (Right: Hannah Senesh in her British Army uniform)
Playwright John Wooten tells Hannah's story in a non-linear fashion, hop scotching from prison to childhood to Palestine and back to Europe again, moves made clear by Nadine Charlsen's lighting design and Joseph Gourley's spare but evocative set. While the episodic nature of the script might be a tad confusing, telling the tale chronologically, starting with Hannah's childhood, would rob the play of its drama and suspense. Adam Immerwahr's direction makes it all work quite well, especially when he has the grown-up Hannah "watch" scenes from her childhood as if she is remembering them or, in one case, describing them to another prisoner. We also get to see background scenes between Hannah her brother George, who has come to join her on a kibbutz in Palestine, and a very droll scene that has an inexperienced Hannah driving along a country road to the consternation of a very frightened Yoel.
The Jews of Hungary were among the last to be rounded up and deported, but that did not mean that they did not suffer from prejudice throughout the thirties and early forties. For instance, for her daughter to attend a Christian school, Hannah's widowed mother must pony up triple tuition, and when she is elected editor of the literary journal, Hannah is unceremoniously (and secretively) removed and replaced by a Christian student. And don't think that the German Nazis were to blame for this mistreatment; Hungarian Nazi-sympathizers, the Arrow Cross, did the job with gusto before and after the Nazis occupied Hungary.
In addition to Wisan, Immerwahr has assembled a talented group of characters, many of whom have to play rather unsavory roles. The most impressive of these is Alan Coates, whose prison commandant Silon is one scary character. Sly, devious, he is quite a match for Wisan's Hannah who stands with a ramrod straight back and looks him in the eye when he addresses her. It is truly a battle of two strong wills; of course, he holds all the cards, so it won't bode well for her. Maxell Eddy does a fine job as the nasty and cruel Prison Guard who shows a glimmer of humanity when this girl offers him a gift for his son. That he never lets that spark grow shows just how depraved he's become in the wartime circumstances. Michael Satow's Yoel is charming but also no match for Hannah's force of nature, and Drew Hirschfield is endearing as Hannah's brother George, who tries to talk her out of returning to Europe to no avail.
The two women in the script, Hannah's mother Catherine and a young Hannah/Rachel, add softness and sympathy to the proceedings. Kayla Maisonet is an adorable young Hannah, yet she reveals a steely nature that comes to fruition in Wisan's depiction of the character. As Rachel, she gives us no clue as to whether the character really exists; she's mainly there so Hannah can reveal background details and information about the Haganah (the Jewish branch of the British Army). As Catherine, Jean Taflet's superb performance shows us where Hannah gets her backbone, along with the anguish of a mother who is about to lose her daughter in an especially horrible way.
The story of Hannah Senesh and her exploits may not be well known, but on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, Hannah is a fitting tribute to those men and women who are true heroes, people who, whatever the situation, put their fellowmen/women first—regardless of the danger to themselves. Silon tells Hannah, "The young think they are indestructible," and Hannah tells George, "I will die before I break," which she did. Fortunately for us, Hannah Senesh left a legacy of diaries and poetry to give us a hint as to her states of mind, her motives, her hopes and her dreams. And John Wooten's Hannah is a role model for us all.
In a poem she composed and gave to a comrade as she crossed the border into Hungary before being caught, Hannah wrote,
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Impatient, imperious, impetuous, Hannah is all that. But above all, impressive—impressively brave.