A Review of “Etty” by Susan Stein
The best of music and theater transport us somewhere outside our own particular time and place, even beyond our own cultural and religious coordinates. By allowing us outside our boundaries, they offer a chance for fresh insight and inspiration. Susan Stein’s one-woman play “Etty,” directed by Austin Pendleton, does just that. In this Amnesty International Award-nominated play, actress Stein introduces us to a most remarkable and spiritually inquisitive young Dutch Jewish woman of the early 1940s. Drawn entirely from the dairies and letters of Etty Hillesum, we experience a remarkable kind of theater-as-time-travel.
Etty Hillisum walks into the room straight from Amsterdam in 1942, carrying nothing but her suitcase, sits down for an hour and talks with us, directly and frankly.
She talks about wrestling with life and love and spirit, about unflinchingly staring down reality but not allowing others to make one a victim, about claiming what comes in life and finding meaning in it. She talks about compassion – even for the enemy.
Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz in 1943, but she left most amazing and spiritually challenging diaries. Hoping to become a writer, her diaries take on their own literary life, presenting her growth as a writer and her spiritual transformation in the midst of the unimaginable horrors encroaching on her life.
In the diaries Etty explores spirituality with a curiosity and drive that feels absolutely contemporary today. She read widely and was influenced by Christian and Buddhist writers as well as her own Jewish tradition. Though often by very unconventional paths, Etty pieces together her own meaning through exploring sexuality, ethics, spiritual teaching, work and self discipline, and even her own extemporaneous versions of prayer.
In the play’s second act, actress and playwright Susan Stein propels the conversation into our own times and our own wrestling match with reality by leading an audience-generated dialogue.
In this touching exploration of the human spirit, wrapped in a novel approach to theater, Ms. Stein gives a renewed life to Etty, challenging each of us to look at our own point in time with compassion and insight. I asked her who her best audience for “Etty” had been, and she had a most unusual answer – prisoners. She has just returned from a tour of the United Kingdom where three of her performances were at high security prisons.
I would hope that this audience would also become the growing interfaith community and those organizations who might consider hosting a performance. As Dr. Sabine von Mering of the Center for German and European Studies at Brandeis University wrote: “[Etty’s] fascination with Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism is a wonderful inspiration for the dialogue our time so desperately needs.”
In a vision of the future beyond the horror of the events of her time, Etty thought she foresaw a new world emerging and asked us not to leave her at Auschwitz but to let her have a “bit of a say” in what she hopes would be that new world. We don’t face the holocaust she faced, but we do face a very troubled world, a world that can use the transcendent message Etty wrote and lived.
“Etty” has been performed on tour most recently in the United Kingdom and is currently being seen throughout California (February/March 2015). For a schedule of upcoming performances, a video clip of the play, and details about how to book a performance, visit the Ettyplay website.