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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

"Dear Esther" shares story of survival


Esther Raab's grueling survival and narrow escape from a Nazi prison camp during World War II is a story every bit as emotionally gripping as any to emerge from the Holocaust.

Playwright Richard Rashke's "Dear Esther" goes a few steps beyond the survivor's tale by exploring her psychological journey out of the Sobibor death camp long after the end of the war. The season opener for The Next Act Theater Co., "Dear Esther," portrays the dramatic end of Raab's slow, decades-long journey toward full acceptance of what happened to her and so many others at Sobibor.

The play's opening scene illustrates the painfully obvious nature of prejudice and how it is passed from one generation to the next. It's difficult to tell whether or not Rashke thinks this is a new concept for his audience and is taking a condescending tone. It's hard to imagine that any audience would need this introduction saturated with racial slurs that are nowhere near as bracingly offensive as the prejudice they are clumsily meant to represent.

This sour, amateurish note fades rather quickly and the rest of the play is a solid, compelling drama.

As the main narrative of the play opens, Esther -- played by Flora Coker -- attempts to relate her story of escape from the concentration camp to a classroom full of children decades after the war. Esther is hesitant to relive the horror through speaking candidly about it to impressionable, young children.

A much younger Esther -- played by Laura Gray -- present only in her mind, aggressively encourages her through every difficult moment and agitates her into far more difficult ones. Whenever the older Esther considers veering away from the more gruesome and traumatizing bits of her experience, the young Esther needles her into relating a much more vividly horrifying story than she would like to recall.

As much as they disagree, both young and old Esther are bound by a common love for their mother and a firm commitment to the overwhelming responsibility of telling the youngest generation about the horrors of genocide.

As important as it is to address the frighteningly ubiquitous nightmare of state-supported mass murder, the relationship between the young Esther and her older self drives the play in a far more powerful way. Inner conflict plays out brilliantly between Coker and Gray in dialogues between Raab's youthful anger and her wise experience.

The two actresses provide a palpable familiarity with each other in conversation, which makes their unity believable. The real disappointment here is that more time was not spent on exploring the psychological intricacies of this engrossing relationship.

Communication between the two incarnations of Esther gets a bit ruffled over the course of the play. Generous, inquisitive and compassionate letters from Esther's students are periodically read by the supporting cast. The letters keep either Esther from ever giving up on the process of telling the whole story. They provide an interesting third end of the dialogue between youth and wisdom.

Rashke worked quite closely with Raab on the script. The letters read throughout the play were actual letters she'd received from students she spoke to and her answers to those questions were equally real. This lends an authenticity to the script, which Next Act has done a respectable job of bringing to life on stage.

"Dear Esther" plays now through Oct. 17 at the Off-Broadway Theater. Tickets range in price from $22 to $30 and can be purchased by calling (414) 278-0765.

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