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Giving Meaning to 'Never Again'

Jane Kaczmarek reprises her role as a German mother in 'Kindertransport,' a Holocaust play with a small-scale focus.

April 21, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Jane Kaczmarek has performed on many of this country's best stages, appeared in major films and--yes--done her share of fluff, too. But that's not why she became an actress.

For her, it was--and still is--about changing the ways in which people think about such matters as injustice and intolerance.

That is why she's appearing in Diane Samuels' "Kindertransport," which opens Thursday at the Tiffany Theatre. For the production, directed by Deborah LaVine, Kaczmarek reprises her performance as the German mother Helga, the role she created in the play's U.S. premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1994.

Set in suburban London in the 1980s, the drama tracks the effect of England's pre-World War II evacuation of German and Austrian-Jewish children on three generations of women. The tale, based on actual experiences of evacuees and others, adds a new dimension to what is known about the Holocaust.

It also fits well with Kaczmarek's ideals. "This play represented to me exactly why I got into theater," says the outgoing actress during a recent afternoon interview at the theater. "There's something about this play that makes me feel active in not letting something like this happen again.

"It sounds so small, I know," she continues. "But as an actress, you do so many stupid things, to pay the mortgage or whatever. This is a play that really [speaks] to so many personal issues that I have about respect and admiration of Jewish people."

For all the times she's been cast as Jewish--including in Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" on Broadway in 1991--Kaczmarek is actually the product of a Polish Catholic upbringing.

Growing up in Milwaukee, she showed an early affinity for the stage. "I remember in kindergarten, there was a pageant of the peach blossoms or something and we were all supposed to leave the stage [one] way," the 40-year-old actress says. "I convinced every single person on that stage that we should leave [the other] way.

"I was wrong," she continues, "but it was the first time I got a sense of having a certain power onstage."

It was the start of a lasting mutual affection between Kaczmarek and the footlights. Yet she was never interested solely in theater.

Her fascination with the Holocaust, for instance, also dates back to her youth.

With many summer hours spent in the local library--"We had a list on the refrigerator," she recalls, "and we had to read a book a week"--the young Kaczmarek began to read up on World War II. "I was always really curious about how that could have happened," she says.

But no matter how much she learned about the destruction of the Jews and others in Europe, she didn't initially grasp the larger context: the widespread and ongoing phenomenon of racial hatred among many of the world's peoples.

That first came into focus when she was an adolescent. "In 1967, when the [Six Day] war broke out, I remember being surprised and [asking] my mother why anyone would attack Israel," Kaczmarek says. "My opinions of Jewish people and Jewish culture were a fantasy of how much people must love [the Jews] because of what they went through in World War II, and because they were so good at everything."

It was a jolt to find out otherwise. "That was a real turning point, to realize that my opinions of how I thought history would have proceeded after World War II were [just] my girlish ideas," she says. "This was a much bigger issue than something that had just happened since World War II."

Years later, when Kaczmarek enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she continued to be interested in both history and the theater--although she decided upon the latter as a career. She went on to train at the Yale School of Drama from 1979 to 1982.

Since then, Kaczmarek has appeared at prestigious theaters on both coasts, including the New York Shakespeare Festival and South Coast Repertory.

Last month, the actress received an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for her turn in Nicky Silver's "Raised in Captivity" at South Coast. Reviewing the production, The Times' Jan Herman called Kaczmarek's portrayal of a psychologist "the funniest character in 'Captivity.' "

She has been seen in films (including "Falling in Love" and the upcoming John Grisham movie "The Chamber") and on television, in such series as "Picket Fences," "Equal Justice" and "Law & Order."

Artistically speaking, though, it is opportunities such as "Kindertransport" that keep Kaczmarek going.

In particular, she admires the way in which it brings history down to size, rendering it comprehensible. "People hear 'the Holocaust' and they think they know--yes, 6 million, etc.," she says. "But when you think of 6 million, you just can't wrap your brain around that.

"Bringing it down to one little girl and seeing how she weaned herself away from her home and her origins in order to survive makes it so powerful," Kaczmarek continues.

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