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BWW Review: A BOX OF YELLOW STARS Shines Brightly at Theatre Works

Produced by the Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis, Natalie Parker-Lawrence's A BOX OF YELLOW STARS is a play inspired by true events -- one man (we never know his name) rescues fifteen women from the horrors of the Holocaust by . . . marrying each one and taking her beyond the reach of the Nazis. I only had a sketchy knowledge of what Ms. Parker-Lawrence was attempting in this play, and knowing practically nothing else, I questioned what her approach would be. (At one point I imagined a grim line-up of fifteen women relating horrific experiences, and that would have been a torturous experience indeed.) What she has accomplished is a surprisingly balanced piece: She wisely utilizes humor and dry wit to leaven her characters' painful, sometimes long-buried recollections.

The premise (like Chris Averwater's stark set) is simple enough. An elderlly woman, "Helena," accompanied by her slightly impatient daughter "Patsy," is paying her respects to a man she once knew. She lingers more than the daughter would like, singing English versions of old Hungarian songs and telling quaint, moralizing stories which set the daughter's eyes to rolling (though she loves her mother, she has evidently heard all of this so many times that she is resistant to listening). It looks as if no one else will be occupying the rows of seats in the funeral home until "Sonya," a short woman with an imperious air, walks in. We soon discover that the elderly women have more in common than otherwise apparent: The numbers which Nazis tatooed on their arms, the horrors they escaped, and the memories that they carry. Yet, the survivors are different: Helena is afraid that her daughter hasn't entirely understood what she has been trying to impart; Sonya, who is from Belgium and humorously keeps referring to the Hungarian Helena as a "gypsy," seems to have adjusted more successfully in the States. Then, a third mourner -- a tall, homely figure dressed in black -- enters and tenderly touches the casket; and at this point, the play begins to engage the audience with a series of surprises. (To give these away would be to vitiate the power of the play.)

In many ways, Patsy represents the view of the audience. She knows what happened in the past, but now, acclimated to the pace and tenor of life in America, she is content to let "sleeping dogs lie." (Coincidentally, I had just seen the German film LABYRINTH OF LIES, also a true story about a young German lawyer in the 1950's who investigates the atrocities of Auschwitz and finds that the German people simply want to "forget.") The three survivors all see in Patsy the potential for carrying their "stories" forward and, with an awareness of the meaning behind those stories, take some personal responsibility and commitment to fight injustice where she encounters it.

Like THE LARAMIE PROJECT, A BOX OF YELLOW STARS has an instructive social message. Yet, it's to Ms. Parker-Lawrence's credit that the strong, powerful subject matter isn't just intent on "teaching," for the welcome, humorous exchanges and distinct characters here real entertainment value as well; and a quartet of fine actors bring them to life. The exceptional Janie Paris (who was so good as the mountain woman in Justin Asher's HAINT) is a weary survivor, anxious that she has not successfully reached her daughter; Donna Lappin's "Sonya" displays more savvy and exhibits common sense and a dry, caustic wit; Daniel Martine's "Lea" (probably the most surprising character in the play) is heartbreaking in relating how he was taught by his mother to survive; and Dana Terle's reluctant "Patsy" bit by bit undergoes a change in attitude as the play progresses. Director Ruby O'Gray's empathetic and perceptive touch captures all the nuances in Ms. Parker-Lawrence's literate, tight script. Closing November 22.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)