The Placer Performance Calendar


Great Local Shows - Theatrical Reviews

Title I Never Saw Another Butterfly
Organization Sierra College Theatre Arts
Date(s) of show October 23- November 1, 2015
Reviewer Dick Frantzreb
Review There’s a starkness about I Never Saw Another Butterfly that starts with the spare set. But then what else would you expect from a drama about the Holocaust? I guess what makes this all the more haunting is that it’s the Holocaust represented through the experience of the children who were caught up in it.

The play begins with actual poems written by the children of the Terezin concentration camp, located in Czechoslovakia. (The title of the play comes from one of the poems.) These poems are accompanied by the children’s drawings, which are displayed on two screens suspended above the stage. Eventually these screens are used to display concentration camp scenes or other images that complement the action taking place on stage. Between and a little above these screens is a narrower screen frequently used to denote a location or, as at the beginning, the title of the poem being read.

Usually, when a scene concludes and the stage clears, there is applause. Not after the reading of these poems, though. We in the audience were already moved by the painful subject of the drama, and I think we all considered it would be disrespectful and insensitive, even disgraceful, to applaud.

The story that unfolded is that of teenaged Raja Englanderova (played by Bailey Adkins), detailing her experience in the camp (with flashbacks to her tense family life in the Prague ghetto as the Nazi occupation tightened). Most of her camp experience deals with her interaction with Irena Synkova (played by Deborah Odehnal), an older woman who, having seen her own children killed, has dedicated herself to nurturing the children of Terezin as best she can. To my mind, the pathos of this situation was beautifully dramatized by both Adkins and Odehnal.

There is little to relieve the tension and gloom in this story, the historical context of which is so familiar. There is the anxiety and despair of Raja’s Jewish family, played powerfully as they try to have a normal Shabbat dinner. There is the displacement of the family. There is the separation of the men and women. Ultimately, there is the transportation to Auschwitz for certain death. Even the joy of a hastily arranged wedding under a canopy is overshadowed by the pall of the fact that the groom is about to be sent off, likely never to return.

The play draws a moving presentation of events and circumstances that were truly monstrous. Yet, at one point Irena says, “Think, Raia, such things cannot be true.” Of course, we know they could be, so Irena’s naiveté or perhaps just wishful thinking is all the more tragically ironic. And emphasizing the reality of the situation, there are two points during the play, where an offstage announcer recites the names and ages of children who died in the camp, along with the dates of their deaths.

Much of the performance is a monolog by Raia, delivered on a bare stage with 3 platforms, with a few added props for key scenes. Yet the drama is exceptionally intense, and as the play progressed, I began to see that the great tragedy being portrayed is the sense of isolation: separation from one’s community, from one’s family, even from the temporary friends one hasmade in the camp. This is most poignantly displayed in the separation of Raia from the love interest she has cultivated in the camp, Honza (played by Richard Sims). At one point Raia says, “What was there to feel when you had said good-bye to everyone you ever loved.”

Yet this play is not an unremitting tragedy. Along with the oppressive circumstances, one can trace the triumph of the human spirit. You see it in Raia, who ultimately survives. You see the resilience of children in difficult circumstances. You see the determination to survive in the strength that derives from shared suffering. You see the struggle to live embodied in the poems of the children and the reference to their plays, games, drawing and writing that have helped them keep hold of their humanity.

Throughout this play I found the acting strong (most of the players are Sierra College drama students). But the portrayals by Adkins and Sims were especially fine, and that of the more mature Odehnal was simply inspired. The play ends powerfully with nearly all the cast on stage, representing the characters who have died at Auschwitz. Raia acknowledges them all and then concludes, “My name is Raja. I am a Jew. I survived Terezin not alone and not afraid.”  It's a sobering story, but also one that is uplifting and for me, a Sunday afternoon well spent.

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