Theater review: 'The Little Lion'

By TONY FARRELL Special correspondent

How smug we are to think that any of the seven deadly sins — pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth — might ever apply to us.

But beneath them all lurks an insidious eighth, forever haunting the human heart. It is resentment, leveling its corrosive, pedestrian gaze upon anyone it might blame for its troubles.

So let us be reminded yet again how Europe’s Jews fell squarely in its line of sight during the most shameful years of the 20th century with “The Little Lion,” playwright Irene Ziegler’s powerful and gripping masterwork now playing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre as part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival.

Expertly crafted by Ziegler from a young adult novel penned by noted local writer Nancy Wright Beasley, “The Little Lion” stares back, long and hard, into the face of creeping evil as Lithuania’s Jewish population is systematically decimated prior to and during World War II.

Hewing as closely to real-life facts and details as Beasley was able to determine from extensive research for her book, “The Little Lion” focuses on Laibale Gillman, a Kaunas, Lithuania, teenager who used his skills as a mechanic to ingratiate himself with occupying Russian and Nazi forces.

Through his special — if tenuous — status, Gillman eventually was able to smuggle food, medicine and even friends and family across the lines of the city’s Jewish ghetto.

But do not mistake “The Little Lion” for a broad-brush retelling of familiar stories about Jewish resistance to the Nazi extermination machine.

Instead, we are shoved roughly and intentionally into the tragedy’s chilling backstory: how non-Jewish Lithuanians murderously turned upon their own countrymen, riding a wave of European nationalism to blame Jews for income disparities, Soviet annexation, communist control and any other axes they could find to grind.

As Laibale, John Mincks leads a cast of 23 excellent actors as “Lion” opens on a scene of the boy’s victory in a motorcycle race. But even as finches tweet on the clear Baltic air, persistent, casual disdain for the Jews — along with acid epithets — cloud the sights and sounds of youthful abandon and family togetherness.

Ziegler carefully uses the smallest details of daily life, such as peeling potatoes and using a sewing machine, as portents of horrors to come. Laibale’s mother even senses the coming storm in the changing sound of the birdsong.
“Hunger turns to accusation, torment, grief,” she says.

Even as the Jews are abandoned, abused, segregated and murdered, first by their neighbors and then by the Nazis, Ziegler manages to salt the sober story with peppy humor, and director Tom Width keeps the pacing as tight as possible even as “Lion,” which resists easy trimming and runs more than two hours, samples the complicated ingredients of human anger and brutality.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Anne Derse, who attended the opening-night world premiere of “The Little Lion” with current Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Rolandas Kriščiūnas, noted that more than 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews lost their lives during the war era.

“History books are one thing, but when you hear the story of something, that history comes alive,” she told the audience before the show.

Derse, who served as ambassador from 2009 to 2012, added that U.S. assistance provided to Lithuania since the country’s formal recognition as an independent state in 1991 comes with a request that Lithuania continuously work toward educating its citizens about the country’s actions against the Jews during the war.
“Tolerance is something you have to teach every generation,” she said.

In pre-show remarks of his own, Kriščiūnas, who toured the Virginia Holocaust Museum with Derse prior to the show, praised “The Little Lion” and agreed that the Holocaust was a dark page of world history.
“You could not imagine darker ones,” he said. “But I can’t imagine any other time for when looking back is also looking forward.”

“The Little Lion” will not reward those who may yearn for an upbeat ending. Joe Doran’s careful lighting and Jason Herbert’s useful projections track the desperate strategizing and ultimate destinies of key characters, almost all of whom perished (though one Gillman family member, whose story of being spirited out of Kaunas by Laibale as a baby is depicted in the drama, also attended opening night).

But the events, personalities and courage we witness in “The Little Lion” tell us that the act of remembering may be the first step in helping to prevent the unthinkable from happening again.

“May we always know who we are, from whence we came, and what we have endured,” a clutch of Jews prays as they bury a box of photos, sketches and journals that will prove to the future that the Holocaust really happened.

Thanks in part to them, today we say two simple, somber words: “Never forget.”

Add now three more to mark this excellent, essential premiere of “The Little Lion.”

Don’t miss it.

Contact Tony Farrell at