Review: "Hidden": It Begins with Your Family but Soon It Comes Round to Your Soul

Hidden

Written and directed by Marc Weiner

Presented by The Playwrights’ Gate at the Chain Theatre

312 W. 36th Street, 4th Floor, Manhattan, NYC

May 11th-May 28th, 2023

Eileen Sugameli, Mark Friedlander, and Sean Edward Evans in Hidden. Photo by Shraya Kag
Collective memory can be a pernicious thing in contemporary America. But to be a Jewish American has always meant living with a complex and inescapable relationship to the near past: to be like other Americans, only with the unique burden of bearing witness to the existential horrors of modern, systemic extermination. As the events of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War retreat further and further from contemporary American memory, the Jewish American voice has a unique capacity to continue to give voice to these events, to serve as a repository for an unyielding and uncompromising collective memory and in doing so, remind all of us of our moral obligation to, in fact, never forget.

Marc Weiner’s is one such voice. Weiner's new play Hidden presents interpenetrative narratives from the Warsaw Ghetto and Poland of the 1940s, and the Columbia University Vietnam War protests of 1968, and it draws analogues and contrasts between conflict, character, and obligation – all of which echo upon leaving the theatre and considering our own epoch.
Jon Lonoff and Emily Blake in Hidden. Photo by Shraya Kag
Hidden’s narrative moves across time, swinging seamlessly among 1968, 1942, and 1947. This non-linear presentation is supported by an adroit set design such that images associated with both the 1940s and 1960s are presented alongside each other. This juxtaposition subtly yet continuously challenges the audience to consider parallels, echoing what Holocaust scholar Michael Rothberg has called “multidirectional memory” – challenging traditional modes of temporal causality to bring nuance to bear on the ethical obligation to understand the pain of others. In one particularly striking example, when the action returns to 1968 in the second act, the semaphore at the center of the set has been papered over with a photograph of mass transportation to a death camp. It is in the present of the play that the past is most keenly felt.

Similarly, a small wooden box remains on stage throughout the play, across acts, countries, and time periods, serving as a metonym for the inescapability of history. Late in the first act, when the audience learns just what purpose the box initially served, the metaphor is deeply and darkly extended to the multidirectional presence of both trauma and intergenerational trauma.
Michael Lopetrone, Michael Gnat, Sean Edward Evans, Mark Friedlander, Jon Lonoff, and Eileen Sugameli in Hidden. Photo by Shraya Kag
The principal characters, David (Michael Lopetrone) and Nina (Eileen Sugameli), meet in the trenches of the late 1960s, undertaking the ethical business of protest. Their chance encounter turns out to be anything but; the shared unwavering commitment to social justice that brings these two together initially turns out to be but the latest manifestation of a deep ethical underpinning intertwining their families’ histories across 26 years and both sides of the Atlantic. Lopetrone's and Sugameli's performances exude grace, authenticity and maturity, with a particular knack for plumbing the complicated depths of their quickly intensifying and even more rapidly evolving interpersonal linkage.

A nimble supporting cast rounds out the story’s rise and fall, with small groups of characters often playing out thematically relevant yet temporally distinct scenes in close proximity and simultaneity on stage. Michael Gnat and Jon Lonoff, as the interlinked patriarchs, both display a talent for both humor and darkness via monologue and dynamic paired scenes. Jakob's (Gnat) wife, Sarah, played by Emily Blake, provides a particularly resonant voice to the choir when she’s invited to return to Poland by her newly extended family. Her gracious yet firmly delivered reply deftly underscores the production’s commitment to both the value of family and the importance of self-preservation. Similarly, early in the show, Sarah’s brother – Sean Edward Evans’s Joseph (born Joshua) – anchors the felt pressures of Catholic duty and service in Vietnam, before an unexpected confrontation in the second act gives him the opportunity for a hauntingly controlled yet explosive exploration of the darker depths of his motivations.

In the end, the Jewish imagination returns, as it seemingly always does, back to ethics and the paragons of Jewish thinking. Back to Martin Buber. Back to Emmanuel Levinas. Both thinkers, in their respective ways, exalt the essential role of interpersonal relationships in ethical thought and praxis. Hidden offers us a path for recovering the past, albeit one that requires leaps of interpersonal love. The things that are hidden – personal and historical – are the things that tie us together, linking us as humans across oceans and generations. These greater, loftier reconciliations begin with love, as Weiner and his cast poignantly remind us.

-Noah Simon Jampol

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