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Review: "My Brother's Gift" at the Blackbox Theater

Imagine going into hiding for over two years. You cannot speak above a whisper. A knock at the door stops your heart. You are entirely dependent upon the kindness and discretion of others. Then someone you trusted turns you and your entire family over to the Nazis and you’re shipped off to Auschwitz …all because you were simply born Jewish.

Black Box Theatre’s current production, “My Brother’s Gift,” is the dramatic offering presented as part of the “Out of Darkness: Holocaust Messages for Today” initiative. It is only one of the many diverse contributions being given throughout the Quad Cities in remembrance of the abomination of the so-called “Final Solution.”

By way of background, a black box – small “b’s” – theatre is a relatively recent innovation in theatre dating back to the early 1900’s. Surprise! It is literally a black box…walls, ceiling, floor…all painted black. This minimalist concept is meant to focus attention on the performance.

Ideally suited to this format, “My Brother’s Gift” is an adaptation by Claudia Haas of the prolific writings and memories of 93 year-old Holocaust survivor, Eva Geiringer Schloss, specifically the poetry and paintings of her brother Heinz, a Holocaust victim. Do not be put off by the subject matter. Yes, there is an element of doom, but there is also an overriding element of hope.

This script is presented as a retrospective. Schloss appears at a lecture about her family’s experience of the Holocaust, primarily a loving tribute to her brother, which allows the sharing of Heinz’s paintings via video screen as well as through brief vignettes. Her family’s journey eerily parallels that of the famous diarist Anne Frank’s family. Both families fled to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis and knew each other. Both went into hiding when the Nazis invaded. Ironically, betrayed by a double agent in the Resistance, Schloss’ family was captured on Eva’s 15th birthday in May 1944, about a year before the war’s end. Even more eerie is that Schloss’ mother and Frank’s father married after the war, making Schloss and Frank step-sisters.

Patti Flarherty’s portrayal of Eva Schloss’ doting affection for her brother is sweet and endearing, movingly displaying Schloss’ eventual reconciliation with the atrocities she endured. I’ve seen Flarherty in many roles in various venues. This is one of her more memorable, if brief, roles and also demonstrates her professionalism by maintaining character even in scenes where she is in blackout.

Pleasant Valley High School senior, Charles Thomas Budan, steps up to the extremely challenging role of the multi-talented, sensitive Heinz with confidence. His range from the young, protective older brother to the adolescent coming to terms with his possible extinction was impressive.

Equally impressive was Central High School freshman, Wrigley Mancha’s, rendering of the young Eva. Forced to grow up much too soon, she morphs from naiveté to harsh reality with ease. While probably for good reason, the only drawback was putting Mancha into a much too modern very blonde wig.

The hope in this work I mentioned earlier comes to us through the wisdom of Eva’s father who attempts to deflect Heinz’ anxiety over what he anticipates will be his annihilation by explaining that he, Heinz, and Heinz’s future children will be links in a chain to the future. Although neither Heinz nor his father survive, his poetry and paintings do. They are his enduring links to the present.

“My Brother’s Gift” continues at The Black Box Theatre, 1623 5 th Avenue, in Moline, Thursday through Saturday, September 8 through 10 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 11 at 2:00 p.m.