Dramaworks of Florida State College at Jacksonville presented the Florida premiere of Arlene Hutton’s LETTERS TO SALA, at The Wilson Center on the South campus of FSCJ. The play ran from November 7 – 10 for only one weekend.
“Letters to Sala” is subtitled “A Young Woman’s Life in Nazi Labor Camps” and was conceived by Ms. Hutton using the book “Sala’s Gift,” written by Ann Kirschner, the daughter of Sala Garncarz, a Jewish woman from a large extended Polish family, who survived the Holocaust. The book was written several years ago, but the play was only published within the last two years.
The story begins in the 1990s in New York City, where the elderly Sala (DANIELLE GLENN) lives with her daughter Ann (JULIA FALLON) and her granddaughters, played by LINDSEY HARLEY NEWBERN and GRAISON CARAS. Sara is about to have major surgery and is apprehensive about the outcome. She gives Ann a large box of letters, along with some photographs, which she explains is correspondence she received from friends and relatives during the years of internment.
An earlier story shows the young Sala (SERAH BENNETT) and her family at home in Poland. Her sister Raizel (ALYSSA VANDERVORT) receives a letter telling her she must report to a labor camp. Because it seems that Raizel might have physical problems with the work, Sala goes in her place. Sala was only sixteen in 1940 when she became a resident laborer in the camps, where she remained until the end of the war in 1945.
The German labor camps allowed their captives to both receive and send letters, and were efficient in delivering them since they felt the mail helped the workers accept the harsh conditions. They had a rule that letters must be destroyed but Sala somehow managed to keep and conceal her cache of over three hundred letters and other items. The letters were written in Polish, German, and Yiddish.
The stories, which take place in domestic settings in New York and Poland, and in the labor camps, are carefully woven together with dialogue and staging and anchored in time and space by the fabulous set of Production Designer JOHNNY PETTEGREW. The labor camp setting, with a large observation tower in the background, fills most of the center stage. Ann’s New York apartment is on the left, with Sala’s home in Poland on the right. Video screens provided dates and other information for a number of scenes, in addition to actual newsreel videos of inmates in the camps.
Most of the action takes place in the labor camps where Sala is a seamstress. Serah Bennett does a terrific job in this demanding role, which requires her to be on stage for extended periods of time, and to interact with many different characters. Ala (LOVIE LINDAWAN), a woman who is also a prisoner and works in the camp administration, becomes her friend and mentor, helping her remain focused on survival. Sala also has a boyfriend, Harry (RICHARD ROSADO), but the romance ends after he is shipped to another camp.
Sala is frequently moved from camp to camp, and so meets many others who must endure the same dehumanizing conditions. And the brutality of the guards is shown from time to time, as prisoners who commit minor offenses or who do not meet Nazi standards of purity are forcibly removed from the camps.
After a dramatic notification of liberation at the end of the war, Sala meets a young, shy, American soldier, Sidney (CHRISTOPHER VALADE) in Germany. They marry and she moves to New York as a war bride. While not part of the play, we learned in a printed epilogue provided as a supplement to the program that they had three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Sala and Sidney are still together and will celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary in March, 2014.
In New York, the elder Sala returns home after having recovered from surgery, and gives the letters to her daughter, who must decide what to do with them. Ann understands the value of the letters and wants to give them to the New York Public Library, so they can be preserved and shared with others. However, her daughters are demanding that she keep them; the play ends with the resolution of this conflict within the family.
KEN MCCULOUGH, Professor of Theatre and Head of FSCJ’s Theatre Performance Program at Wilson Center, directed this play and it is probably the most challenging of the many he has directed here since 1994. The action moved back and forth between the three areas and the timing and blocking were seamless, a tribute to the skill of the director and the dedication of the cast.
The costumes by CAMALA PITTS and DORINDA QUILES featured utilitarian clothing in dark colors (mainly brown) for the wartime scenes, with brighter contemporary wear for the New York setting.
We recognized a number of members of the cast from previous shows at FSCJ, mainly from “The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild.” We were most familiar with Julia Fallon and are happy to see her back on the boards again after an absence of a couple of years. Ms. Fallon was probably the most experienced cast member, as she has been in many plays and musicals on our local community theatre stages since she was a child.