The Hollow Men
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 10, 2007
Emily Rossi's short play The Hollow Men springs from a darkly imaginative seed—using T.S. Eliot's poem of the same title as a character study of a Holocaust survivor. Anna, elderly, has never told anyone stories of how she survived a concentration camp; to do so, she says, would shatter again her fragile, patched-together soul—her hollow spirit. But she finds her story in Eliot's words—and, as the older Anna recites "The Hollow Men," her story comes to life.
Young Anna arrives at a camp alone; she's been separated from her fiancé in transport and has no other family. Placed in a block of other prisoners, Anna is befriended by an older woman, Ester, who helps to nurture her spirit and keep alive her dreams of reuniting with her lover someday. But when the camp's commandant takes an interest in the beautiful, feisty Anna, a course for disaster has been set—a course that will lead to the act that hollows Anna's spirit. In perhaps the most famous lines of Eliot's "The Hollow Men," "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."
The poem is at its most literally relevant at the very beginning and end of Anna's story, but serves as an eloquent stylistic counterpoint throughout. Where Eliot's poem is packed with metaphor and compressed language, Rossi's dialogue is spare and unadorned. Sometimes the writing even feels a little simplistic—more like a parable or a fable, where every line goes toward a moral, rather than ordinary speech. But even if the dialogue sometimes rings false, the tight plotting (the whole play runs barely 45 minutes) leads to a devastating and surprising denouement. And although the officers can seem like stereotypical evil Nazis, in her treatment of the prisoners, especially Anna, Rossi taps into a vein of moral ambiguity that's rarely seen in writing about the Holocaust.
Director Laurie J. Wolf stages the play simply and effectively, on a stage bare but for piles of rocks that the prisoners must shift back and forth across the stage as their (fruitless) labor. All the actors wear solid black; the camp prisoners' yellow stars and the officer's swastika armbands are the only bits of color. The power relationships within the play are always illustrated beautifully by actors' physical relationships. And Wolf makes especially good use of a chorus of female prisoners, who are silent (except for one who weeps throughout). Playwright Rossi also plays the young Anna, and she has a lovely, delicate stage presence—as does Laura Frye, as the elderly Anna.