Rarely can subject, theme, experience and purpose be so tightly intertwined as in "The Devil's Arithmetic," adapted for the stage by Barry Kornhauser from Jane Yolen's children's novella.
To start, this unity of purpose seems more didactic than theatrical as we meet Hannah, a 14-year-old in New Rochelle, N.Y. Bored with her family's annual Seder, she isn't even interested in the experiences of her family's two Holocaust survivors.
This opening segment is at pains to establish that Passover, like most Jewish holidays, is about the necessity of remembering past persecutions and celebrating survival. But eventually the play opens up to a far more active, epic tale.
Hannah soon becomes the vehicle for these lessons: In the usual ritual, she is chosen to open the door to welcome the prophet Elijah ... and it becomes a magic portal, through which she emerges into a Polish shtetl in the ominous year 1942.
Now called Chaya, her previously ignored Jewish name, Hannah is welcomed into a very different life. There is pleasant humor in her unfathomable tales of life in New Rochelle, but they are excused because Chaya has just lost her parents and arrived in the country from Lublin, a Polish city so different from the shtetl it might be New Rochelle indeed. Her new teenage friends enjoy her stories from "Star Wars," "The Wizard of Oz" and even "Yentl."
The New Rochelle opening and Hannah/Chaya's adaptation to 1942 Poland ("I'm speaking Yiddish!" she realizes) add entertaining layers to the eternal story of Jewish survival. But then the Nazis arrive to cart away the whole town, and in spite of her boredom with Jewish history, our heroine becomes a prophet herself, knowing the horrors that lie ahead.
Of course no one believes prophets when they speak of such brutality, all the more terrible for its cold calculation -- which is where the play's title comes in, I guess. Suddenly the whole town is crammed into a boxcar and delivered to a "camp" with the devilish motto "Work will make you free."
Act 2 is set in this camp, mainly among the girls and women, shaved bald, terrorized by well-fed Nazi guards. The magical transformations of Hannah's fictions are nothing in comparison. Now the persecutions of the pharaohs and Romans, popes and czars seem real. The past is present with a barbarity no one can fathom.
In this brutal world, Hannah grows up, completing her transformation into Chaya and accepting martyrdom. She steps through that portal into the ovens, then reemerges in New Rochelle. Reconciliation with her survivor aunt seems almost an afterthought -- we have lived the transformative experience with her and need be told nothing more about how the past is always with us.
This is an epic of remarkable complexity for a semi-pro group such as Prime Stage, and the cast of 18 and imaginative direction of Lisa Ann Goldsmith deserve praise for giving it such compelling cohesion. A community theater feeling is appropriate for a story of the large community to which we belong.
Some scenes achieve unbearable poignancy, such as when Chaya is tattooed with her prison number, or when the four girls interpret the meaning of their lives from those same numbers. Who can fathom the devilish arithmetic of 6 million dead? But who can resist a story of teenage girls, traced from their homes to the ovens of Auschwitz?
The production achieves some remarkable scenic effects, mainly through projections and lights. Tom Roberts' live klezmer-infused music is just enough, never too insistent.
In such a large cast, there are many to praise, but I will settle for Julia Zoratto as the young heroine and Dana Hardy as her insistently positive aunt.
It is almost axiomatic that the producer of "Devil's Arithmetic" is Prime Stage Theatre, which commissioned Mr. Kornhauser's adaptation and now presents its world premiere. Its goal is to advocate for Holocaust education to be included in school curricula, just as the history of slavery and slaughter of Native Americans have had to fight their way into the light.
"The Devil's Arithmetic" was a 1999 TV movie, but this play may have a longer-lived impact when taken up in one community or another, although it takes a brave company to stage something so big and complex.
Chaya means "life" -- just one way the play links remembrance of the past to survival. "You must remember," it says. "If not us, who? If not now, when?"
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.