There are always tricky challenges of a new piece. The Messenger, Jenny Connell Davis’ play, which premiered at Palm Beach Dramaworks on December 8th, doesn’t show any.
Directed by Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Art Director, Williams Hayes, the play is set on a simple and modern stage design, which looks more like an art exhibition than a classroom from the 90s. From the first scene, the four characters in the play wear their hearts on their sleeves, appearing vulnerable until the moment they’re proven otherwise.
Georgia Gabor (Margery Lowe), a Jewish woman from Budapest, Hungary, and a survivor of the Holocaust, teaches math and wants to share her historical account of a very dark period of human history with her students against the odds, not realizing how her storytelling is impacting them and gaining animosity among their parents.
The three other characters — one (Annie Fang) from 2020, another one (Gracie Winchester) from 1969, and the fourth one (Angela Gulner) from 1993 — a mother who relentlessly pushes the boundaries to protect her children from Gabor’s sad and horrific reality show — come in and out of the story, all the while punching through one more piece into the puzzle that is The Messenger.
The four characters are, by definition, a connection “between past, present and future.” Their voices are heard one by one, making the audience wonder: were these real people? And the answer to that is: at least one was. This is the real story in part of Gabor, a young girl who suffered the evil and atrocities of the Holocaust and survived to tell about it to anyone who would listen — admittedly, her purpose in life.
As the audience learns before the show, after her experience in Budapest in the 40s, Gabor moved to California, where she made a new life for herself and later had her own family.
Her daughter Roberta lives in Jupiter, Florida. One day, a Palm Beach Dramaworks patron for many years, she tells Hayes about her mother’s autobiography. And he, in turn, reads the book and immediately sees a play in the making. As that story unfolds, Hayes commissions Davis — PMD’s first playwright in residence — to write it, and that’s how The Messenger is born.
Gabor was 5’1″, had brown hair, and a tiny build. For those familiar with Lowe, she was cast well. The perfect match to play this fascinating role. A challenge? Of course. But Lowe is a talented actor, and aside from the physical similarities to her character, she masterfully plays historical roles. Her portrayal of Emily Dickens in last year’s PBD’s presentation of The Belle of Amherst was flawless.
But this role of playing Gabor has a personal connection, as it is the story of the mother of someone she knows. Lowe’s portrayal of Gabor is empowering and inspirational. As the 90-minute theatrical presentation shows, much of The Messenger unfolds predictably, not just because most of us already know the history of the Holocaust, but because, like Gabor’s students, we are taken on a journey where we hear her recount the astonishing events of how she escaped the Nazi regime not once, but four times.
For people following the current news, The Messenger is incredibly timely. The name-calling, the antisemitism, and the accusations that led to the loss of jobs and status quo in a small town had a long history of racial profiling — from Hispanics to Jewish and Asian cultures.
In this play, we find certain hidden pockets, or not-so-hidden, all over the country and the world. Gabor believed her mission in life was to keep the story alive. She didn’t think there should be a holding back from her students and wanted them to be educated about the real side of history. So, she told the story to them every year. Some parents found that controversial. And, indeed, our country is battling with that right now of what’s appropriate to teach and what’s making some people uncomfortable to hear.
In Gabor’s case, some parents didn’t want their children to hear these stories. And it wasn’t long before she began to experience threats and antisemitism from her students.
Like Gabor, the other characters in The Messenger fought for what they believed in and were let down by their community.
This play is powerful not because of what happened to one or two characters but how it happened. It makes The Messenger worth seeing: the choreography of the four characters coming in and out of the spotlight as they stand before the audience to tell their side of the story; the endless collections of books aligned so perfectly in disarray and reaching up to an unmarked ceiling; a desk used to depict many different scenes from the 1940s, 1990s and to 2020.
In all, the simple set with lots of white space says much about the endless stories hidden away, the ongoing abuse and displacement of all peoples and classes, and the realization of both audience and character that Gabor and the other characters are not simply playing their roles, but that they are us. This narrative device is compelling.
Though the set is simple, this realization doesn’t leave much room for the characters to breathe onstage as Davis hurtles us to the climax in one perfect scene at the end. The audience is left with the notion that the characters of The Messenger made questionable decisions. Yet, we are meant to take in their stories — in the same town but in different periods — and learn a simple lesson: do not stay silent when inhumanity happens. With The Messenger, Gabor accomplished just that.
“The Messenger” is now playing until December 24, 2023. To buy your tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is at 201 Clematis Street in West Palm Beach.
Correction to Review of “The Messenger”
This story has been edited to acknowledge and correct an unintentional oversight regarding the capitalization of the term “Holocaust,” which appeared with a lowercase “h.” The corrected version now accurately reflects the historical significance of the Holocaust with the proper uppercase “H” throughout the article.
The Editorial Board