Monday, May 18, 2009

Saving One at a Time

(Feature article)

In 1939, Americans were watching "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind." They weren't paying much attention to the little articles at the back of the newspaper about some guy named Adolf Hitler, who was invading Poland.

"We had the Dust Bowl to deal with, and immigrant labor and other American issues, and somehow Europe was far away," explained Woodland playwright Susan Bigelow, as we discussed her play, "Rose Colored Glass," which opens Friday at the Woodland Opera House.

"Even though the newspapers printed bits and pieces about invading Poland, and putting Jews and gypsies in concentration camps, it was small pieces. We didn't notice until we started to win the war, and by that time 6 million were gone."

The play, co-written by Bigelow and Janice Goldberg, looks at the Holocaust from the point of view of two American women of very different backgrounds, who are drawn to the events happening in Europe the way many of us first become involved in a cause: because they care about one person affected by these events.

"We tell the Holocaust from one point of view, from this side of the ocean," Bigelow explained. " 'Rose Colored Glass' is the story of two women who lived on opposite ends of an alley: one Irish, one Jewish, each stereotypes of their individual heritages."

The two widows haven't spoken in years, but their disparate worlds in 1938 Chicago are about to collide. One woman's 13-year-old granddaughter, Peg, is determined that these two mistrustful widows will become friends.

"Suddenly they have something to fight for: to get a young Jewish boy to the United States, safe and sound."

In many ways, the friendship of Lady O'Reily, who runs an Irish pub, and Rose Fleischman, who owns a Jewish delicatessen, mirrors the friendship of Bigelow and Goldberg themselves.

Bigelow moved to Woodland when she was in the second grade, and she lived in Woodland through high school. She went away to college and subsequently ran a little theater in Eureka, which produces original works by American playwrights.

She submitted a play to a women's festival. ("I'd been a playwright for a long time," she said.) As a result of that submission, she met Goldberg, a native New Yorker, who ended up directing Bigelow's play in that city.

"I went to see the play," Bigelow recalled, "and we became pals."

Bigelow invited Goldberg to Eureka, to visit her theater. Goldberg liked what she saw, and expressed interest in directing a play there sometime. "Sometime" turned into a 12-year stint, as she returned to Eureka year after year, as a guest director.

But that came later. Bigelow still remembers her first trip to New York, to meet Goldberg.

"I was visiting New York, and she was taking me around. It was my first time in the city, and I was with a native New Yorker. She kept looking behind to make sure I didn't get lost!"

"Rose Colored Glass" arose out of that meeting, as both wondered if two women of quite different backgrounds could become best friends, if they had enough interests in common.

The play debuted in New York in 2007, where it ran for about six weeks and was picked up by the Samuel French Publishing Company. It then was performed by theater groups all over the country.

Bigelow explained that years of study about the Holocaust have put her on a soapbox, with respect to what happened to 6 million Jews during World War II.

"We don't do that in the play," she assured me.

"But," she added, "people to this day still believe the Holocaust was a hoax. I understand why denial is a great thing, if you don't want to believe it happened. But the sad thing is that we're repeating it. Genocide is genocide, and I can't believe we're ignoring the lessons of the past again and again in places like Rwanda and Darfur."

That said, she again hastened to insist that this play is not a "holocaust piece"; it doesn't try to hit people over the head with a message. Lady and Rose simply try to get a young man across the ocean, so he doesn't wind up in a concentration camp.

"It deals with the early American apathy toward what was happening in Europe. The little articles in the back of the newspaper need to be noticed. They often blossom into something bigger."

In the end, for the women in this play, it's about one boy: their boy.

"To them, probably, the other 6 million are an abstract concept.

"But when you come down to that one boy — a boy for whom you're making a jacket, and finding a job, and getting a visa — it becomes very personal.

"I don't know what 6 million means," Bigelow admitted.

"But people can grasp one person."

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