‘Freedom’ finishes its finest hour this weekend
By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
For its second production of “Freedom,” the National World War II Museum elected to bring in one of the people responsible for its development, the only non-Jew within its group of four writers, Sean Patterson. But, not to worry, as Patterson will admit, there is more than enough Jewish material within its pages to make this an important work for viewing by the entire New Orleans Jewish community.
Finishing its two week run this weekend, “Freedom” is the product of Joyce Pulitzer and Patterson and originated with fellow writers David Seelig and Kitty Greenberg, both of whom perished before its world premiere in 2013 at Southern Rep.
While Southern Rep producing artistic director Aimée Hayes directed that first iteration, “Freedom” found new light just two years ago, when it was presented for the first time at BB’s Stage Door Canteen in a storm-shortened series of shows directed by Le Petit Theatre’s artistic director Maxwell Williams.
Now, with Patterson at the helm in this third production, there is no doubt the subtleties and emotional sweep of the work has been mined for all of its expressiveness.
“Freedom” is a moving theatrical experience with two people on stage talking and sharing their life experiences, both with legitimate reasons to have sought and found shelter beneath the American promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For the third time, Lorraine LeBlanc assumed the role of Yetta, a Holocaust survivor, who is preparing to take her Oath of Allegiance. It is 1998 and she is in a nondescript Manhattan federal office building. But Yetta, who is hiding a big secret of the story of her survival during the Shoah, is worried by a letter she has received and nervously drops it from her purse when another early bird candidate for citizenship, Danny, unexpectedly shows up in the same room.
Danny, played by Todd Voltz, is from Northern Ireland, the home of sectarian unrest for centuries and he, too, has suffered a painful past. When Yetta drops the letter on her way out of the room, he becomes curious as to what it is. He is about to open it when Yetta bursts back into the room anxiously searching for the errant letter, which Danny hides from her for a bit to establish that it is, indeed, the object of her angst.
Thus begins the one-on-one conversation in which we eavesdrop as the two reveal their deepest secrets and desires, primarily fueled by a need to connect to their fellow human beings.
“I meddle,” Yetta warns Danny early in their exchange. And indeed she does. She is determined to get him to open up to her as only a stranger with no emotional investment can get someone else to do. She encourages him to let it out, suggesting he will feel better. Eventually, his honesty allows her to confront her own dark past.
While the secret she is keeping stems from her internment in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, Yetta does not play the lowly victim. She is a survivor in the strictest sense of the word, enduring unspeakable abuse as a young woman, but managing to rise above it. While trying to save the life of her mother (who happens to be in the same camp) and keeping herself alive, she perseveres. Her life after the war leads her to France, a chance meeting with her eventual husband and their immigration to America.
With a thick Irish brogue, Danny reveals he has also emigrated where the sectarian violence and bloodshed eventually caught up to him. He is forever shaped by both his own defiant actions and those which claimed the lives of his closest and innocent family members. It is a blatant reminder that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.
Danny uses the course language of the Irish streets and one word in particular upsets Yetta, who asks him to please refrain from using it. But try as he may, he cannot control his continual use of that word as a modifier. He doesn’t do it maliciously or with contempt; it is just in his makeup and his background that causes him to keep forgetting.
In a way, “Freedom” can be seen as a ritual cleanse in that the two individuals, both running from their past, are able to pause at the naturalization center and shed themselves of their haunting memories and move towards a new life as fellow Americans. We are witness to what they have to say to each other in consolation and in support and even if they never see each other, we know they are forever changed by this chance encounter.
“Freedom” suffered in its previous two outings with an ending that seemed contrived, unrealistic and bereft of meaning. It was as if the scriptwriters had gotten to a point where they knew they had exhausted their material and needed to make a quick exit and the acting suffered because of the way the directors envisioned the ending, which seemed saccharine and trite.
Patterson deconstructed the manuscript’s ending, allowing both characters to now struggle through an act which prepares them for their impending naturalization oath, cements their friendship and ends the play. There is a genuine sense of connection between them that was missing in the two previous outings.
A judicious use of video slides and limited projections keeps the attention of the audience squarely on the actors. Lighting by Christopher Hornung and the sound design by Wesley Strain are both excellent. Scenic designer Hannah Lax also created a functional performance space that works well with the limited stage at BB’s Stage Door Canteen.
“Freedom” is not without its moments of inspired levity, which help to lighten the load of the agonizing memories the characters share. As eavesdroppers for almost 90 minutes, the audience can more easily appreciate the travails the fictional Yetta and Danny endured. It should give us pause to consider the actual thousands who continually flock to our shores to enjoy the blessings and rights enjoyed by their fellow Americans.
To become an American citizen is a very big deal to these characters and to all those lucky enough to become naturalized citizens. While many of us often take these blessings for granted, Danny and Yetta will not. Somehow, we know this intuitively.
Thanks to these two fine actors and Patterson’s direction and his fellow writer Joyce Pulitzer and her husband Sidney, who produced “Freedom,” this work can be considered as having enjoyed its finest run to date.
“Freedom” concludes its run this weekend with sold-out performances due to limited seating due to COVID restrictions at BB’s Stage Door Canteen in the National World War II Museum. For information call 504-528-1943.