Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Who Will Carry the Word?
Grand Canyon University
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Matt Doyle and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Brian Stokes Mitchell at Musicfest


The Cast
Photo by Tim Trumble
The horrific events of the Holocaust have been documented in countless films, novels, documentaries and plays, and just about everyone is aware of the barbaric deaths of six million European Jews were killed in Auschwitz and the other concentration camps during the early 1940s. However, not everyone knows that other people died and were imprisoned in the camps, including homosexuals, gypsies, communists, and many others who opposed the Nazi regime. Who Will Carry the Word?, written by Charlotte Delbo who was a French Resistance fighter sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, is a factual story that focuses on a group of female French Resistance fighters who found themselves fighting for their lives in the concentration camps.

Grand Canyon University's production of Delbo's play has an incredibly gifted cast who deliver rich and harrowing portrayals under Claude Pensis' precise but never too heavy-handed direction. While Delbo's personal story and the stories of the other women in the camps is heartbreaking and wrenching to hear, the play has several shortcomings that stop it from being a truly moving and emotional experience. Delbo is a good storyteller but not a good playwright.

Delbo survived and returned to France in 1945 with the goal to "raise the past from its ashes, to carry the word," and her several memories, and this play, ensure the past will never be forgotten. The play features a group of over 20 French Resistance women who find themselves prisoners in the concentration camps and who continually state that "no one knows we are here" and plead with each other that "there must be one of us that returns." As many suffer disease and death and the size of the group gets smaller, the women tell descriptive stories and monologues that depict the horrors they saw and how they need to hold on at any cost with the determination not to give in. When just a few of them are left, even they aren't sure if they believe what happened to them, as they say it was "even unbelievable to us."

There is no denying the personal and painful connection Delbo has to the horrific events she experienced, or the pain, suffering and death of the millions of people in the concentration camps. However, Who Will Carry the Word? works best as a string of stories and testimonials of the events that happened and details of the horrific circumstances of the camps and not as a well-crafted theatrical drama. It is often repetitive and too long with a sameness to the entire 125-minute production. Almost all of the characters have a similar tone and style of speaking which doesn't help in making them appear unique and, while the events the women talk about are descriptive and horrifying, there is little suspense or drama to the piece.

Delbo hasn't written narrative dialogue that works for a play, as there are a couple of times when a woman leaves the stage while another character narrates what she is seeing that woman do to the remaining group of women, who are also all watching the action. This is done just so the audience knows what is happening but makes no sense since all of the women are seeing the action play out. It's a shame that the sameness to the piece and the shortcomings in the playwriting threaten to detract from Delbo's intent to use the piece as a way to ensure what happened would never be forgotten.

Fortunately, GCU's cast and creative aspects are superb. While the group of more than twenty actresses are all exceptional, three of the women, Tarnim Bybee, Allye Moyer and Christine Ward, play characters with the most stage time and they all create rich characters full of depth. Bybee's character is the one who frames the story, and she does very good in portraying this woman who is almost set to give up when the play begins, until a woman named Claire (Jessica Rumrill) convinces her it's more important to live to ensure someone knows what happened. Rumrill is excellent in this small but crucial role. Also, Ward's lengthy monologue that details several horrifying situations is exceptionally delivered.

Pensis' direction is subtle but always effective. The first half of the play takes place in wintertime and the cast members are continually, and realistically, showing the shivering state of these women who are freezing in their light clothing. The confrontations they have are naturally depicted and the stories they tell are clear, precise, and emotionally disturbing. William Symington's stark and bleak set features several large fence posts and strings of barbed wire which makes the audience feel as if they are a witness to the emotional strife and stress the women endure through the electric fence, yet are unable to do anything to help. Dasha Buchanan's sound design and Pensis' lighting use a combination of gunshots, sirens, and flashing lights to depict the uncertainty the women encounter every minute of every day. Nola Yergen's costumes and Tu Nguyen's hair and makeup designs effectively depict the dirt, grime and filth of the setting.

I clearly don't want to shortchange the intent of this play or the lesson that we all can be reminded of, especially since it still shocks and resonates today with similar senseless acts of violence against minorities and the fact that there is so much talk about separating people who are different from us. I only wish Who Will Carry the Word? were a better play in order for it to serve as a testament to the millions of people who were killed in the Holocaust and to the strength of the human spirit in those who survived who had the desire to not only live but also ensure their story was told.

Who Will Carry the Word?, through February 16, 2019, at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre, 3300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ. Ticket and performance information can be found at events.gcu.edu/events/category/ethington-theatre/ or by calling 602-639-8880

Director: Claude Pensis
Scenic Designer: William H. Symington V
Lighting Designer: Claude Pensis
Costume Designer: Nola Yergen
Sound Designer: Dasha Buchanan
Hair and Makeup Designer: Tu Nguyen
Stage Manager: Devin Erwert

Cast:
Claire: Jessica Rumrill
Francoise: Tarnim Bybee
Mounette: Christina McSheffrey
Gina: Allye Moyer
Yvonne: Christin McGrath
Madeleine: Emily Sheppard
Reine: Halee Conway
Marie: McKenna Kollman
Renee: Elizabeth Schneider
Anges: Elise Nawrocki
Sylvie: Amy Kee
Small Peasant Girl: Kayleen Harshbarger
Regine: Madelyn Mertes
Elisabeth: Abbey Yee
Hortense: Autumn Neil
Denise: Christine Ward
Monique: Dasha Buchanan
Berthe: Hallie Unruh
Dedee: Veronya Bedford
Helene" Paige Duhon
Helene's Mother: Alex Empey
Lina: Audrey Williams
Laure: Morgan McCall
Peasant Girl 1: Naomy Samai
Peasant Girl 2: Giselle Morale


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