An Interrupted Life – a review of Etty

Mike Buzzelli

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

During the Nazi occupation of Holland, Esther “Etty” Hillesum (Susan Stein) is encouraged by her unconventional therapist, Julius Spier to keep a diary of her innermost thoughts in Susan Stein’s “Etty.”

Etty spills her life out in her journal. She is very forthright in describing her passions on the page. She writes about her lover Han and her affair with the very therapist that recommended that she write the diary in the first place; the brilliant and eccentric Julius Spier.

Her life takes an unfortunate turn when she is shipped off to Westerbork, a transit camp where Jews were interned before being deported to concentration and extermination camps in Eastern Europe.

As her rights are slowly stripped away, Etty finds her strength and power through her writing. It’s a powerful piece of the Holocaust literature.

Esther “Etty” Hillesum looking off wistfully, surrounded by her beloved books.
Etty (Susan Stein) writes in her diary.

Stein is the actor and playwright in “Etty.” She has been working with the diaries for years and is deeply invested in Etty’s story. She immerses herself in the part.

She embodies the writer. It’s a moving portrayal of the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum.

There is practically no scenery. It’s Stein on a stage with a suitcase (she sometimes uses as a chair). She doesn’t need anything else. She paints a very vivid picture of Etty’s life without props or scenery.

It’s a very educational piece of theater.

Austin Pendleton directed the sparse one-woman show.

Side note: There is a milder, PG-rated version that Stein performs for middle-school and high school kids. Like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the play seems like a perfect educational tool to engage children in learning about the horrors of the Holocaust.

The play is a brisk 52 minutes with a talk back at the end of each performance. In the talk back, Stein becomes herself again, freely chatting about all the things she wanted to tell us about Etty, but didn’t get into the actual play.

She lights up discussing the woman and her art. Stein speaks of her meeting with Hertha, Julius Spier’s finance. Though the elderly woman is in the throes of dementia, she vividly recalls her encounters with Spier and Hillesum. It was fascinating to hear about Stein’s moments with the survivors of that horrible time in our history.

Stein’s conversation with the audience was even more brilliant and exciting than the show itself. She shines when casually chatting about the woman and her work. It’s rare for any reviewer to claim that they loved the talk back even more than the show, but here we are.

The Holocaust is a shameful period of human history, but as philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Sadly, it seems as relevant and important as ever.

“Etty” runs through Sunday, February 10 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 West Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information, click here.



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