MARBLEHEAD – “Pain travels through family lines until someone is ready to heal it in themselves,” wrote an unknown author.
Marblehead director and playwright Anne Marilyn Lucas has written two plays that explore the effects of trauma on family members, and the ways that silence compounds that pain. We often hear about Holocaust survivors, but what about their children, raised in the shadow of fear? We often hear about drug addicts, but what about the parents trying desperately to save their lives?
“Everybody does focus on the victim, but nobody focuses on the collateral damage, and the families continue to be wounded, especially if it’s unacknowledged,” said Lucas, who attends Temple Emanu-El and teaches theater at Salem State University. “But they can be really, devastatingly altered.”
Lucas’s play, “From Silence,” is an exploration of three generations of pain caused by the Holocaust. It tells the story of Esther Gold, a Holocaust survivor who, like so many other survivors, does not wish to discuss her wartime experiences. When Esther learns that her synagogue is on lockdown due to a terrorist threat and her granddaughter Elaina is trapped inside, she begins to question her longstanding silence.
The play is partially based on the experiences of Judith Sherman, a survivor who remained silent until publishing a memoir of her time at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and her daughter and granddaughter, who always yearned to know more. While Lucas was obtaining her master’s degree in creative writing from Lesley University, she attended an event in which Sherman, her daughter, and her granddaughter took turns reading from the memoir, “Say The Name: A Survivor’s Tale in Prose and Poetry.”
“As I saw the three generations, a thrill went through my body, and a part of me just kept saying, ‘Oh, this is a play,’” said Lucas. “I wanted other people to have the deep experience that I had witnessing how this trauma had passed through this family.” Lucas introduced herself to Sherman, and then began collaborating with the family to adapt the story into a script.
Sherman imagined that the stage adaptation would simply retell the events recounted in her memoir, which includes the harrowing saga of hiding for years in a closet, getting apprehended in the woods, and having medical experiments performed on her by the Nazis. Lucas, however, envisioned a play exploring how trauma reverberates through generations.
“What I wanted to do was tell the story that I was witnessing – how damaging her silence was to her daughter and her grandchildren,” said Lucas. “Interestingly, even when they were reading the book in public, she would never directly address her daughter about the subject.”
In the play, three versions of Esther Gold – a woman in her 80s finally coming to grips with her past, a 40-year-old housewife determined not to say a word, and a 10-year-old girl at Ravensbrück begging her to tell her story – compete for Esther’s attention, even though she is outwardly silent. Lucas said this was based on Sherman’s admission that her mind is always torn between trying to stay in the present, and a past that haunts her.
After nearly a decade of work, “From Silence” debuted in 2016 at the Theater for the New City in New York City. Since then, it has been performed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, at the Marblehead Little Theatre, and at the Gloucester Stage Company. It is preparing for a run at Cottey College in Missouri in 2020.
Next March, another of Lucas’s plays, “Recovery,” will be staged in Greece, and it is currently being translated into Greek in preparation. It also has been performed at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, the Theatre for the New City, and is rehearsing for an October run at the Marblehead Little Theatre. The play was recently submitted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Like “From Silence,” “Recovery” weaves together three discrete narratives to tell a story based in part on a real mother-daughter relationship. The play takes place at a rehab facility and explores the stories of three mothers and their drug-addicted daughters. Lucas based the play on her experiences with her daughter Liz, who was once addicted to heroin.
Lucas explores the excruciating pain and guilt she felt during the worst parts of Liz’s addiction. “Parents feel like it’s our job to protect our kids from everything, and it’s our job to stand between them and death, always, whatever the threat may be … and you are powerless in a way that is painfully indescribable, and so in my play I talk a lot about how parents recover,” she said. “It’s a nightmare, and nobody pays attention to what happens to the parents.”
Lucas has written dozens of plays over the years, and she said that “Recovery” was the hardest to write. “I sobbed every day – I made it my graduate school thesis project because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never do it, because I would keep saying, ‘I’m not good enough, I need to do more research, I’m not really smart enough,’ but I’m a good student,” she said.
Liz, now 10 years sober and a new mother studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor, came to see the play in New York.
“She is radiant, strong, so caring, nurturing, she’s become the woman that I knew she could be,” said Lucas, who unlike the characters in her play, communicates openly with her daughter. “I would say the one thing about my relationship with her is no matter how much her disease was hiding it, I knew who she was inside, and I never let go of it. I held onto the person she truly was, no matter the disguise.”