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Living History

One-Woman Show Intensely Revisits a Dancer's WWII Survival

Stephanie Hemling
Joan McCready is alone with the dancers in her head.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/1/2008

A Time to Speak

By Sam McCready and Helen Lewis

At Performance Workshop Theatre through Oct. 19

A prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who was 25 when the camps were liberated by the Allies in 1945 would be 88 today. Thus there are fewer and fewer such survivors each year, and before long there won't be any. When they're gone, gone too will be our person-to-person connection to that unusually clear example of political evil. What was once a part of our lives will become mere history.

It's that personal connection that makes A Time to Speak such a striking piece of theater. This one-woman show about Helen Lewis, a camp survivor, has an unusual degree of nuance and vividness because both writer/director Sam McCready and actress Joan McCready have known Lewis for 40 years. In watching this show, you never get the sense that the director and actress are guessing at what the character might have been like; you get the feeling that they are representing someone they know intimately.

Lewis was 29 when the Russian army liberated her from a group of prisoners marching away from the Stutthof slave labor camp in 1945; she had already survived stints at Terezin and Auschwitz. Today she is 92 and living in Belfast, where in the 1960s she was a mentor to two young actors, Sam McCready and his future wife Joan. At first the two youngsters just knew Lewis as the most gifted choreographer in Northern Ireland; only later did they spot the Auschwitz tattoo on her left forearm and discover her experiences of 20 years earlier.

Joan McCready doesn't resemble the photographs of Lewis in the program or on the internet, but the actress does have the accent of someone who grew up in Czechoslovakia, the graying hair and oval glasses of an old woman, and the bright eyes of an artist. One of the rewards of this show is that it never limits its protagonist's identity to "prisoner"; we never forget that Lewis is also a professional dancer. In fact, at several crucial moments during the show--when she first arrives at Terezin, when she learns of her husband's death, when she's forced to dance for the Stutthof commandant--words fail her and her thoughts are represented by dancers in the videos projected on the gray walls behind her.

McCready never turns around in her simple wooden chair to watch the videos, for clearly they are taking place in Lewis' head. The dances, choreographed by Lewis' protégé Philip Johnston and performed by Johnston's students at the University of Illinois, use a modern-dance vocabulary to capture not only Lewis' suffering but also her stubborn will. One dancer writhes on the floor in agony, but another is lifted by her fellow dancers into the air like a bird.

The McCreadys never try to hold up Lewis as an exceptional person, a hero. They take pains to reflect her doubts, her weaknesses, her moments of despair. At one point, during the forced march from Stutthof down the icy roads of Poland, any prisoner who slipped and fell was shot by the Nazi guards. Lewis and her friends linked arms to stay on their feet, but eventually the other women decided Lewis was endangering them all with her increasing weakness and they cut her loose. When McCready describes her friend's arm slipping out of her grasp, you can almost hear the rifle shot that is soon to come.

But it doesn't. In one more random quirk of fate, Lewis escapes the death that is all around her. She makes it clear that there was a certain arbitrariness to this, that she survived not because she was smarter, stronger, or braver, but rather because she got some lucky breaks that the others didn't.

The show begins in Belfast with Lewis as an old woman, but it quickly flashes back to her first dance lesson as a 6-year-old in Trutnov, Czechoslovakia. From there the story unfolds chronologically, from her halcyon college days in Prague, where she studied dance with Milca Mayerova and courted her future husband Paul, to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the increasingly stringent Jewish laws. First there were the restrictions on where the Jews could shop and travel, then there was the yellow star, then the forced transport to the walled ghetto of Terezin, then the train to Auschwitz. It's a chilling reminder of the slippery slope a nation can slide down when it starts canceling one civil right or another--suspending habeas corpus, for example, or disregarding the Geneva Conventions.

Joan McCready relates this all in the calm but reluctant voice of an old woman dredging up painful memories. As she sits in her wooden chair, hands folded in her lap, we can see in each wince, we can hear in each pause, her struggle with the wish to avoid those memories and the need to air them out.

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