Familiar Faces Ready for Central Ohio Premiere of Korczak’s Children

For the second show of its 66th season, Gallery Players will perform the Jeffrey Hatcher play, Korczak’s Children, a moving portrait of the famed children’s physician and a harrowing tale of how he attempted to save the lives of over 200 children in his Warsaw orphanage during World War II. The central Ohio premiere opens December 6 at 8 pm, continuing in the Roth/Resler Theater at the JCC through December 21.

Director Laurie Alexander, who specializes in children’s theater and Holocaust education, is excited to bring the community together while bringing attention to Dr. Korczak’s story. “He was a highly regarded pediatrician, by Jews and non-Jews alike. He was like our Dr. Spock today,” Alexander explained. “He had very innovative ideas on education. They study him in Israel to this day.” Alexander, who formerly directed children’s theater at Columbus Torah Academy, saw the play as an opportunity to direct many former students and to increase awareness of the story of hope in the face of terror.

The beauty of Gallery Players’ winter play is that, while it is a play intended for adult audiences and for children aged 10 and over, “The children cast in this play are learning history while performing,” said Alexander. “To me, theater is a wonderful way to do Holocaust education. It seems to mean more to people than just reading a book or hearing a lecture.”

Beyond a lesson in Holocaust history, the play is a noble vision of how one man can change lives for the better and improve upon a tragic fate. Prior to World War II, Dr. Janusz Korczak was a leading pediatrician who had authored the Declaration of Children’s Rights. His belief in children’s humanity and integrity translated into their tender and considerate care while in his Warsaw orphanage. Even under Nazi occupation, Dr. Korczak maintained a sense of dignity for the children who were forced into the harsh confines of the orphanage’s new makeshift location within a warehouse. It is this dignity that is showcased in the play.

Korczak's cast

For Todd Covert, who leads the cast as Dr. Janusz Korczak, the role was one of redemption and reward. In each of his previous roles at Gallery Players, he’s portrayed characters in it for themselves – from a small-time crook in Lost in Yonkers to a sleazy producer in The Producers. This role was an opportunity to step outside his comedic forte into a new kind of role, Covert explained.

“I wanted to play this part because it is a true story about a tremendous man and the sacrifices he made his entire life for children. Dr. Korczak will be the first time I play a selfless human being who puts others before himself,” said Covert. He is approaching the role by researching the real-life pediatrician and humanitarian who worked selflessly to protect the children in his care. There is a wealth of material documenting the real life work and sacrifice of the man who was called “The King of Children,” including a biographical work of the same name by Betty Jean Lifton.

For Stephanie Stephens, who plays Steffa, Dr. Korczak’s assistant and lead teacher to the orphans, the role was one of art imitating life. As a retired teacher, her background in working with children is helping inform both her performance and her connection with her younger castmates. Stephens had wanted to work with Alexander ever since the two worked together on Gallery Players’ Fiddler on the Roof, Alexander in the cast and Stephens as musical director. The role of Steffa felt like the perfect opportunity for Stephens, who also music-directed last year’s Gallery Players musical production of The Producers.

Working with Alexander again is refreshing, Stephens explained, because, “She is no-nonsense. She expects professional behavior out of everybody whether you’re in second grade or an adult. I really like how open she is to suggestions for the benefit of the play. She wants it to be organic, and allows the characters to evolve naturally,” said Stephens.

The play presents an opportunity to join generations together in the ensemble production, including Becky Portman and Jonathan Hartstein. Portman is a senior at Columbus Torah Academy and, with the help of Laurie Alexander, directed a children’s production of 12 Angry Jurors. Hartstein is a physical therapist whose wife is a CTA alum and whose children all attend the school. Both actors are stepping into new territory and enjoying working with actors they admire while mentoring children new to the stage.

Portman, like her character Esterka, a former orphan who returns to direct the children in the play within the play, loves working with the kids. “I think they’re hilarious. I like to make them laugh, too. They’re very talented and really bring lightness to the show,” said Portman, who was last seen in a Gallery Players production when she performed in Number the Stars in the fifth grade. “I really have switched gears since then. I’m not the kid looking up to the big actors, now I’m the big actor the kids are looking up to. That’s a great feeling. But it’s also amazing to work with talented actors like Todd and Stephanie. It’s great to learn from them, too, and to kind of be a student and a teacher at the same time,” Portman added.

Hartstein, who plays the chairman of the Judenrat—an administrative body comprised of Jews but enforcing Nazi rule—echoed Portman’s words. “It’s been thrilling getting to work under Alexander’s leadership and alongside Covert. I couldn’t do what I’m doing without Laurie’s instruction, and Todd has been very helpful in getting me into character. He suggested treating my performance with him as a conversation. Just between the two of us. ‘Make the words yours,’ he said.”

This helped Hartstein with the challenge of portraying a tenuous character who seems both villainous and compassionate, as the Jewish leader who must carry out Nazi orders to protect his own life. “It’s a very difficult position to be in and to portray. I’m approaching it by trying to balance those emotions,” said Hartstein.

Like Covert, as one of the more experienced cast members, Stephanie Stephens also enjoys leading by example. “This group of kids is a wonderful group. They ask lots of questions. They really pick up on it and are very interested in the history behind this play,” she said.

Under the guidance of dramaturg Anca Galron and director Laurie Alexander, the children spent part of the first few rehearsals learning some of the history behind the play. “Laurie’s masterful in how she handles the discussion of the ghetto and the Holocaust. She did a very good job giving the kids context while being sensitive to their ages,” Stephanie Stephens pointed out.

Stephens also noted that even for her, it was eye-opening to learn that in a space smaller than the distance between Capital University and Roosevelt Blvd. in Bexley, the Warsaw ghetto contained 350,000 people. “The looks going around the room—they could not believe how crowded the people were in the Warsaw Ghetto. She really put it in terms that they could understand and then that made them want to know more. This play helps make it real for the children. It makes it more meaningful. It becomes a living history lesson for the whole community.”

Alexander added that’s the whole purpose behind what she does. “I think it’s very important that we understand our history. It’s important for Jewish kids to learn. We have to remember. If we don’t remember… that’s the worst,” she said. To extend the lesson outside the theater, during the month of December, the JCC lobby will feature a historical display that will provide a more detailed background on the life and times of Dr. Korczak. To purchase tickets or learn more, click here [visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org] or call the box office at 614-231-2731.

Showtimes are as follows: 8 p.m. Saturday December 6, 2:30 p.m. Sunday December 7, 7:30 p.m. Thursday December 11, 8 p.m. Saturday December 13, 2:30 p.m. Sunday December 14, 7:30 pm Thursday December 18, 8 p.m. Saturday December 20, 2:30 pm Sunday December 21.

Tickets cost $20, $18 for seniors, $15 for JCC members; $13 for senior members; $10 for children (17 years and under) or students with valid ID, and $10/ticket for groups of 10 or more.