By Jay Menard
Irena Sendler: Rescuing the Rescuer is a valuable show to see for the simple fact that it’s a story that needs to be told and retold. Thankfully, the story is so compelling that it overcomes some of the challenges with Libby Skala’s presentation.
It’s a tremendously hard show to review because any criticism feels almost sacrilegious. But separating the plot from the performance, there are areas that can be refined and improved to make an already impactful story more compelling.
The play is about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who saved over 2,500 Jewish children during the Second World War by convincing parents living in the Warsaw ghetto to give up their children, who would be adopted into Catholic families. Her story is largely lost to time (and the rise of communism in Poland) until students from a Kansas high school learn about her through a history project.
Skala plays many roles in this production, from Sendler herself, to the students, to a teacher, to Sendler’s son, neighbours, and even a Mother Superior from a Polish orphanage. Often the only discernable difference in the characters is the way she wears a pink scarf.
The story is primarily told by two students, which is unfortunate, because they’re the least appealing part of the play — at least as Skala presents them. They are presented as stereotypes — vapid, flighty examples of teenagers, presented more like pre-teens in nature and temperament. Skala also seemed to be searching for lines at various points during the play, with odd breaks mid-sentence and pauses throughout.
The story, unfortunately, remains focused on a superficial level. We see Sendler as an icon — which is reinforced by the other characters that are introduced to help drive the narrative, but we learn little about her. We know little about her motivations, beyond a “good people do good things” statement her father shares with her as a youth. We learn little about her life after the war, other than vague allusions to communist oppression. It feels like there’s an opportunity to explore much deeper into Sendler than this plays allows.
Skala does hit her stride playing Sendler herself. And Steve May’s mournful violin adds a poignant touch to the transitions. And, most importantly, the story is one that deserves to be told and heard by audiences everywhere. For that reason alone, it’s worth seeing. As it stands, this play shows the foundation upon which a much more compelling production of a woman who deserves to be known can be built.
** — two out of five stars
This review originally appeared on theatreinlondon.ca