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Theater review: UMD's 'Dear Finder' packs a mighty message

Jews are packed into a cattle car for the trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in the UMD Theatre production of “Dear Finder.” (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The mind was built for mighty freight.” It is within the spirit of this quote that the latest iteration of “Dear Finder,” written by Tom Isbell, Valerie Buel, Denise Dawson, Jamison Haase, Kourtney Kaas, Julie MacIver, Andrew Nelson and Julie Unulock, dwells as it opened Thursday night at the Marshall Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The provenance of the play is well known by now within our community, so there’s no need to delve into it. The rightful focus is on these stories told on stage by a group of students riding on a freight train of their own into the storytelling of the Holocaust.

I’ve not seen the previous productions of this play, so I have nothing to compare. The impact was jarring, deeply disturbing and, at moments, almost propelled me from my seat into the lobby to gasp for breath.

That’s all due to the 16 actors on stage. More a dramatic witnessing and retelling of survivor stories and the rise of German National Socialism than a traditional play, the actors are taking raw, jagged cuts of real life and throwing them down before the audience, in a manner that, directorially, is more confrontational than entertaining.

It’s a necessary and vital direction. In this load of mighty freight, there’s no place for nuance. And the actors refuse to give it to those in the house seats.

The scenic design by Ashley Ann Woods is a slab tableau of gray, iron, dirt and despair, punctuated dramatically and with haunting precision by Jon Brophy’s lighting design. Notable is a scene where the actors play out prisoners in a cattle car on their way to die at Auschwitz. Brophy’s lighting cast an almost yolky yellow fog of light around them while stripes of dull white light flashed in front of the actors. The effect of movement was powerful and full of foreboding. The dirt on stage is its own powerful property. The actors use it to maximum effect, causing one to recoil, cry and rage at the carnage acted out on it, throughout the play.

Rachel Williams turns in a riveting performance, assuming the role of a survivor of one of the many death camps. As she recounts, in a lengthy and masterfully delivered monologue of falling into a pit of the dead and wounded, feigning death in order to survive, the tension in the theater increased noticeably. The ability to pull that much power from the stage is just one reason every actor is important.

Amanda Hennen, as the prosecutor, and assuming other ensemble appearances during the documentary storytelling, is also a captivating presence on stage. Her delivery rises from bold questioning and indignation to the near whispers of a woman who can barely believe what she’s charged with unearthing.

I wanted a stronger performance in Anna Matthes and Addison Sim as the reporter and playwright, respectively. The contrast in passion between the two and the rest of the cast was noticeable. It was the only weakness in a production of considerable passion and total commitment to roles.

The play ends with a drumbeat of modern-day offenses mirroring the rise of deadly authoritarianism in Germany, reminding us that history rhymes, in the most stunning revelations.

This is not cultural appropriation. It’s witnessing. And this play is still vitally necessary, year by year, victim by victim. It’s the definition of how theater can transform through the ages. It would usually be hyperbolic for one to say they were undone by the performance. But, I am.

IF YOU GO

What: “Dear Finder”

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11-13 and Oct. 17-20; 2 p.m. Oct. 14

Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center’s Mainstage Theatre, UMD

Tickets: $21 adult, $16 senior and UMD faculty/staff/veteran, $10 student, $8 UMD student

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