Here's the first review of the first invited production our Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy critics saw as part of this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region 2. Please weigh in on our students' writing, and if you saw the show, let us know what you thought of it. Agree? Disagree? Something missing? Let's help keep conversations about the lively arts alive.

By Victoria Rose Bonito

A train whistle mimics a woman's screams. Wind whips against frozen ground and a woman shivers.  These are the first images in Rowan University's production of Charlotte Delbo's Who Will Carry the Word?

Anthony Hostetter directs a 20-woman ensemble in this Holocaust survival story--Delbo was a survivor of several concentration camps--with sensitivity and stunning use of movement.  The sheer size of Hostetter's cast relative to Matheus Fialho Fiuza's tight set gives the impression of far more than 20 bodies.  Aided by screeching sound effects, you feel how cramped they are in a train car; you feel the expansive emptiness when all but two women have died. When the women and girls strip to their underwear, and don ill-fitting gray uniforms, their vulnerability is tangible.  Conversely, when the full cast marches in formation with raised fists, their strength and unity captivates.

But watching an individual carefully folding her clothes before stacking it on the anonymous pile and another kissing her wedding ring goodbye brings these women to life.  These intimate details breathe precious life into a story laden with death.  Such personal touches make the first woman to perish matter as much as the last woman standing.  In the first victim's early moment of surrendering her belongings, I glimpse the intricacies of her humanity—the way she nervously fixes her head-kerchief and uneasily lets her feet dangle.

The ensemble also proves outstanding during one character's dream sequence, where taking refuge in a nightmare is preferable to waking in Auschwitz, the ensemble embodies rabid dogs, sleeping women, and treacherous mud. Hostetter choreographs their series of seamless transformations with the spoken word, as a pack of heaving, snarling dogs melt into barely breathing sleeping prisoners.

Powerful physical moments like these question whether the "Word" of these women is really the centerpiece of Hostetter's production (as Delbo's title suggests words should be).  Often, imagery coupled with jarring sound design and Robert A. Thorpe's stark, harsh lighting prove more effective than speech. Delbo writes a powerful piece; unfortunately, some actors' rush through the dialogue and miss sensitive moments of despair, conflict, and passion.

This is not so during Dee Dee's (Allyn Merida) heartbreaking death in her sister Berthe's (Catherine Kustra) arms.  Berthe does not merely comfort Dee Dee; she cradles her, trying to cover her bare knees with an all-too-thin dress.  Again, the performers' nuances illuminate the world far more than dialogue.  Finally, the "curtain call" says it all—twenty anonymous actors stand holding twenty nameless portraits.  The fact that they are united, alive, that we are all now witneses, may be the image that speaks loudest.