A gray and dreary Sunday afternoon last weekend seemed appropriate for spending time with old memories in the attic, where Diane Samuels's drama "Kindertransport" is set. The Gaithersburg Arts Barn was packed with an audience attracted by the downbeat look at scars left on three generations of women by a largely forgotten chapter of the Holocaust: the relocation of 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, from Germany to England just as World War II was erupting.
It's a difficult play to get a handle on as Samuels seems torn between showing us the big picture about the children taken from their families for their safety, most of whom never saw their loved ones again, and the intensely personal family drama played out in the attic. Samuels tells the story in time-shifting scenes with characters from different stages of time onstage simultaneously, even before the audience grasps just who is who.
The result, at least at this particular performance, was a great deal of animated intermission chatter revealing that a substantial number of audience members were completely lost, even as they seemed to be enjoying the individual performances by members of the Sandy Spring Theatre Group.
Those performances, particularly that of Sarah Lasko as Eva Schlesinger, the young German Jew sent to live in England, are quite effective. Directed by Patricia Woolsey, the cast members create convincing emotional bonds as they deal with the rippling psychological impact created when Eva tries to bury her painful past and become thoroughly English.
Lasko, a freshman at Rockville's Ets Chaiyim School, is both convincing and poignant as Eva grows from age 9 to 16, evolving from a good-natured but frightened girl to an emotionally brittle teenager. And she does so hampered by having to speak first in a German accent, and then with an overlay of English intonation.
Eva, or Evelyn as she later demands to be called, cannot keep the past buried, however. It intrudes into her ordered life when her own teenage daughter discovers the German storybook the girl took along on her journey to freedom. Their Jewish heritage is a surprise to Faith (Emily Henochowicz), but it's only the first of several huge secrets she will soon pull from Evelyn (Malinda Smith).
The scenes between middle-aged Evelyn and daughter Faith are problematic because of the way the playwright thrusts these two at the audience without preparing us for the palpable tension between them. There is a great deal of anger and resentment, both spoken and silently lurking, that is confusing and annoying until the entire story is revealed and it becomes clear that even a teenager in the 1980s can still carry scars from the Holocaust.
Smith and Henochowicz create a thick atmosphere of unresolved tension, eased only by the intercessions of Lil Miller (Linda Gordon), the woman who took in and later adopted little Eva.
Rounding out the cast, Nicolette Stearns is heartbreaking as the Jewish mother who sees her gesture of love turn to ashes. Bill Spitz plays a variety of characters and is particularly effective as one who provides human form for Eva's fears.
Although this is a quiet, intimate drama, special care with scenic design and innovative lighting effects are required to help tell the story and make the time transitions clearer. Little effort in that regard is made, however.
"Kindertransport" concludes this weekend, performed by Sandy Spring Theatre Group at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Rd. Showtime tomorrow and Saturday is 8 p.m. For tickets, call 301-258-6394. For information, visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov under "Upcoming Events: or www.sstg-home.org.