National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in Florida
By: Aaron Krause - Dec 16, 2023
Jenny Connell Davis’s vital new play, The Messenger may be the most important piece of live theater that you experience in years, or even decades. It is running through Dec. 24 in a top-notch professional production at Palm Beach Dramaworks (PBD) as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere Program. But if PBD is able to, Producing Artistic Director William Hayes and Co. should seriously consider extending the run. Certainly, the more people who see The Messenger, the better.
Unquestionably, The Messenger, which runs about 90 minutes without an intermission, is a timely and timeless, chilling cautionary drama. It is about the need to speak out or take action in the face of hatred and violence. The play’s basis includes a true story, but the playwright interweaves that truth with fiction inspired by real events.
Surely, the play will make you look inward. More specifically, it will make you consider how many times you remained silent or took no action after witnessing an injustice. In addition, Davis’s work will make you uneasy. That is because it so vividly reflects what is happening in the world with frightening frequency. Indeed, simply pick up a newspaper and chances are you will read about a senseless act of violence prompted by hatred. Further, Davis’s play reminds us that history cannot remain hidden; past infamous incidents can and will repeat themselves if we conceal them.
While The Messenger is about the Holocaust, it is not just another play recounting the horrors of one of the most notorious times in history. Rather, the piece deftly connects the past to the present. It links incidents of violence, hatred, and inaction to form a web of atrocity that paints a portrait of humanity at its worst.
The Messenger is a taut, four-character drama. It tells four different stories, each taking place during a different time period. But again, Davis, whom PBD commissioned to pen a play about Hungarian Holocaust survivor and middle school math teacher Georgia Gabor, connects the incidents in such a manner that they seem part of one large, connected narrative.
The Nazis captured Gabor (1930-1994) three times, and she escaped each time. However, she witnessed atrocities that would give anybody nightmares. Gabor (a riveting Margery Lowe speaking in a convincing accent) came to the U.S. in 1948. She raised a family and started teaching mathematics in 1969. In all, Gabor taught in the San Marion Unified School District in California for 21 years.
Davis, PBD’s first resident playwright, identifies the other three characters not by name, but by the year during which their story unfolds. For example, “1969” (a heartfelt Gracie Winchester), is a curator at The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, Calif.
While searching through the institution’s collection, she comes across an original document connected to the Nuremberg Race Laws. They put the Nazis ideas about race into law. One of World War II’s most important documents was “shoved into our old board meeting records like a forgotten grocery list,” 1969 tells us. The document had been presumed lost since 1945. Can 1969 convince Huntington officials to make the document public, and, by doing so, educate people who may not be aware that such evil existed? In addition to the Nuremberg document, 1969 finds letters that paint a war hero as someone with hateful thoughts that people may not have realized the individual harbored.
Meanwhile, an emotionally intense, yet believable Angela Gulner portrays 1993. She is the mother of one of Gabor’s students and a volunteer at The Huntington. The character of 1993 is complex. Specifically, she is a seemingly well-meaning, open-minded mother who, like all parents, wants to protect her child. But when Gabor begins relating to her students true, harrowing tales from her time in the Concentration Camps, 1993 speaks out. In particular, the mom claims that children should not hear about such graphic incidents. Frankly, though, the girl probably gets exposed to violence every day masquerading as “entertainment.”
While 1993 might mean well, she is keeping her daughter from showing compassion for others while learning about an important historical event. Now, you could argue that during math class, the teacher should teach mathematics, not talk about her personal life or history. You could further argue that history class is the place where children should learn about the Holocaust and other historical events.
One of the beauties of The Messenger is that you cannot simply brand characters such as 1993 “villains” or “heroes.” Rather, the character whom Davis refers to as 1993 is complex and makes us think – right in line with the professional, nonprofit PBD’s tagline as offering “theater to think about.”
Soon, swastikas and phrases such as “Nazis rule” materialize in Gabor’s classroom.
“This kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” 1993 claims, something we may have said ourselves when tragedies occur. But could 1993’s silence about hatred make her complicit in allowing people to terrorize others with symbols such as swastikas?
A fourth character is 2020 (a vulnerable Annie Fang). She is an Asian-American high school student and former volunteer at the Huntington. The character of 2020 is on the receiving end of an anti-Asian comment from a white male at the Huntington. Should she say something or remain quiet as her folks urge her to do? Surely, a tragic incident that occurs during the play saps 2020 of any innocence she may have had, forcing her to grow up before she is ready.
To her credit, the playwright ties incidents of anti-Asian bigotry with incidents of anti-Semitism without claiming that one form of prejudice is more problematic than the other.
Davis has written The Messenger in a non-linear format. The action moves seamlessly back and forth in time. Without necessarily including transitional words or phrases, the playwright jumps from one woman’s story to another’s. Still, the play, which is essentially four monologues, feels like one connected narrative.
The actors, wearing costume designer Brian O’Keefe’s character-revealing clothing, deliver multifaceted, nuanced performances that rivet us to the stage. Their director is Hayes. He smartly moves the performers around the stage and ensures that key moments within the play receive necessary emphasis. And the pacing is just right.
Roger Arnold designed the sound, rendering noises such as exploding bombs and marching boots real and intense. They pierce the quiet.
Meanwhile, Kirk Bookman designed the shadowy lighting. At times, more than one character stands in a pool of light, suggesting their stories’ interconnectedness. During other moments, the lighting focuses one actor at a time. Lighting changes happen seamlessly in a cinematic style, reinforcing the connection between the four stories.
Anne Mundell, PBD’s resident scenic designer, has created a striking two-level set that may be symbolic. The set is mostly one color (off-white/grey) and includes towers of tall papers, notebooks and boxes. The towers look as though they’ll topple with merely a finger delicately touching it, perhaps revealing something vital. The tall towers could also symbolize the delicate state of race relations and civility in this country. All it takes is one seemingly small word or move to throw society into chaos.
Also, behind the scenes, Adam J. Thompson handled the video design, which vividly shows an artist at work.
Undoubtedly, The Messenger is a work of art that one must experience in today’s divisive world full of hate.
While the play’s title carries a complex significance, it could refer to each of us. We are all messengers when it comes to the need to call out evil and injustice.
While an extension would be welcome, the play has an immediate future beyond PBD, which developed the piece.
As part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere program, PBD is the first company to give the play a world premiere production. Afterwards, Shrewed Productions in Austin, Texas will give the play a separate world premiere production. And a third theater company, to be announced, will mount a third world premiere production. For more information, visit www.nnpn.org.
The Messenger runs through Dec. 24 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. Show times are at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Tickets start at $89. For tickets, call (561) 514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.