Letters to Sala evokes a strong emotional response from BHS

On March 10-12, Burlingame High School witnessed the tragic story Letters to Sala, written by Arlene Hutton and produced by Burlingame's own Cindy Skelton. The production had the audience laughing at times, and crying at others, and by the end, everyone felt deeply affected by the horrors of the Holocaust.

Letters to Sala’s plot seamlessly integrates the past with the present. While a younger Sala struggles to survive in the labor camps; in the present day, Sala’s daughter and granddaughters grapple with what to do with the letters left to them by Sala.

In the past story of Letters to Sala, Sala Garncarz (senior Madelyn Levine) is a Polish teenager who is forced to leave her home for a Nazi labor camp in the place of her sick sister. Along the way Sala encounters a variety of quirky characters who help her get through her grueling routine that soon becomes her everyday life in the labor camp, all the while struggling to deal with the separation from her family and adapting to her new life.

The set used in the scenes based in the past was fairly basic: chicken wire fence on the sides and a room with bunk beds in the middle. The beds all had rag-like blankets on top, and for the entire play, the scene in the present doesn’t change.

The same can be said with the clothing that the characters wear: the women were all in generic blue dresses, and the soldiers in the play all had the same uniforms. The only difference of clothing comes from the men, and the three men who aren’t Nazi soldiers in the play all wore different outfits.

The basic scene choice from Letters to Sala may have looked like a boring, uncreative decision at first glance, but in reality, it represents something more. The bland stage and clothing in the camps show how life in the camps was boring and without color. The bland colors in the play highlight the sad nature of the scenes and life overall in the camps.

At Sala’s departure from Poland, she is met by Ala Gertner (senior Felicia Azzopardi), who takes Sala under her wing and through her, the audience is introduced to the daily routine of life in the camps. Shortly after arriving, we are introduced to a relative of Sala, a shoemaker named Chaim Kaufmann (sophomore Max Sigler), who provided comic relief to the audience.

Many other minor characters are introduced in the play through this fashion, and I can say that I enjoyed all of them. Sadly, however, these characters all eventually disappear from the life of Sala, and the emotional pain that their absence bring is wrought on the audience.

Some examples are Ala Gertner, as well as the prime love interest in the story, Harry Haubenstock (junior Edward Phillips). The separation of the two was particularly saddening, and the realization later that he fell in love with another girl was a heartbreaking experience for Sala as well as the audience.

Scenes from the past and present in the play switch often, usually with two or three scenes in the past, then switching to the present. Whenever the scenes switched, the stage light switched to a small table at the side of the stage, where all of the present day scenes take place. The actors were told to wear their everyday clothing, and as a result, I as an audience member felt that I could relate easier to the conflict and struggle.

The plot of the present is all about what to do with the letters that Sala kept from the war. When Sala (junior Viva Freedman) passes down her letters to her daughter Ann (senior Rachel Mellman). Ann takes this opportunity to show the letters to her daughters, Caroline (senior Lena Banchero) and Elisabeth (senior Taylor Navas). The two quickly become entranced with the letters, and both of them realize the importance of their Jewish heritage as well as a newfound appreciation for their grandmother.

The two quickly become attached to the letters and develop a strong emotional connection with them. However, the conflict arises when Ann decides it is best to donate the letters to the library for the public to see.

While at first, I thought that this element in the play was pointless, I was soon swayed by the end of the production, with both sides of the argument bringing up valid points. Caroline and Elisabeth say that they wanted the letters to be personal, a product of them realizing the importance of their Jewish heritage. Ann, on the other hand, wants the whole world to have the same reaction that she and her daughters had when they read the letters and feels that same connection with someone who survived the Holocaust.

At a glance, the future plot could seem boring to many: the scene only revolved around these four characters: present Sala, Ann, Caroline, and Elisabeth, however, when watched, it is evident that the future plot had many things that the past plot didn’t.

Although the past introduced many interesting and fun characters, one of the biggest complaint I had with the Letters to Sala script was that I felt as if the characters weren’t developed enough. We would see one character for about two or three scenes, then they would disappear from Sala’s life without leaving a lasting impression of the character on the audience.

However, during the future plot, the audience got to know the four characters which were introduced very very well. When I was watching, I felt like I could really understand what each of the characters' motivations was, and where their feelings were coming from.

I thoroughly enjoyed Letters to Sala, as I feel like the production crew was top-notch. When I was watching, I could really feel the emotion coming out of the characters that the Actors portrayed vividly, with one of the most emotional scenes for me being one of the last ones, with the present-day family arguing, and eventually crying out of sadness and confusion of what to do with the letters.

Letters to Sala was a very emotional production, and the last scene to the show perfectly tied together the present as well as the future plot. Afterward, I felt like everyone in the audience enjoyed it. When I asked them their reaction, most of them replied that that play was enjoyable, but very somber at times.

Posted on April 21, 2017 .