Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Grand Canyon University's production of Delbo's play has an incredibly gifted cast who deliver rich and harrowing portrayals under Claude Pensis' precise but never too heavy-handed direction. While Delbo's personal story and the stories of the other women in the camps is heartbreaking and wrenching to hear, the play has several shortcomings that stop it from being a truly moving and emotional experience. Delbo is a good storyteller but not a good playwright.
Delbo survived and returned to France in 1945 with the goal to "raise the past from its ashes, to carry the word," and her several memories, and this play, ensure the past will never be forgotten. The play features a group of over 20 French Resistance women who find themselves prisoners in the concentration camps and who continually state that "no one knows we are here" and plead with each other that "there must be one of us that returns." As many suffer disease and death and the size of the group gets smaller, the women tell descriptive stories and monologues that depict the horrors they saw and how they need to hold on at any cost with the determination not to give in. When just a few of them are left, even they aren't sure if they believe what happened to them, as they say it was "even unbelievable to us."
There is no denying the personal and painful connection Delbo has to the horrific events she experienced, or the pain, suffering and death of the millions of people in the concentration camps. However, Who Will Carry the Word? works best as a string of stories and testimonials of the events that happened and details of the horrific circumstances of the camps and not as a well-crafted theatrical drama. It is often repetitive and too long with a sameness to the entire 125-minute production. Almost all of the characters have a similar tone and style of speaking which doesn't help in making them appear unique and, while the events the women talk about are descriptive and horrifying, there is little suspense or drama to the piece.
Delbo hasn't written narrative dialogue that works for a play, as there are a couple of times when a woman leaves the stage while another character narrates what she is seeing that woman do to the remaining group of women, who are also all watching the action. This is done just so the audience knows what is happening but makes no sense since all of the women are seeing the action play out. It's a shame that the sameness to the piece and the shortcomings in the playwriting threaten to detract from Delbo's intent to use the piece as a way to ensure what happened would never be forgotten.
Fortunately, GCU's cast and creative aspects are superb. While the group of more than twenty actresses are all exceptional, three of the women, Tarnim Bybee, Allye Moyer and Christine Ward, play characters with the most stage time and they all create rich characters full of depth. Bybee's character is the one who frames the story, and she does very good in portraying this woman who is almost set to give up when the play begins, until a woman named Claire (Jessica Rumrill) convinces her it's more important to live to ensure someone knows what happened. Rumrill is excellent in this small but crucial role. Also, Ward's lengthy monologue that details several horrifying situations is exceptionally delivered.
Pensis' direction is subtle but always effective. The first half of the play takes place in wintertime and the cast members are continually, and realistically, showing the shivering state of these women who are freezing in their light clothing. The confrontations they have are naturally depicted and the stories they tell are clear, precise, and emotionally disturbing. William Symington's stark and bleak set features several large fence posts and strings of barbed wire which makes the audience feel as if they are a witness to the emotional strife and stress the women endure through the electric fence, yet are unable to do anything to help. Dasha Buchanan's sound design and Pensis' lighting use a combination of gunshots, sirens, and flashing lights to depict the uncertainty the women encounter every minute of every day. Nola Yergen's costumes and Tu Nguyen's hair and makeup designs effectively depict the dirt, grime and filth of the setting.
I clearly don't want to shortchange the intent of this play or the lesson that we all can be reminded of, especially since it still shocks and resonates today with similar senseless acts of violence against minorities and the fact that there is so much talk about separating people who are different from us. I only wish Who Will Carry the Word? were a better play in order for it to serve as a testament to the millions of people who were killed in the Holocaust and to the strength of the human spirit in those who survived who had the desire to not only live but also ensure their story was told.
Who Will Carry the Word?, through February 16, 2019, at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ. Ticket and performance information can be found at events.gcu.edu/events/category/ethington-theatre/ or by calling 602-639-8880
Director: Claude Pensis