The newest play from Canada’s beloved playwright Hannah Moscovitch is a stirring and inspiring drama about groundbreaking Polish/Jewish educator Janusz Korczak, set in Warsaw in pre-ghetto 1939 (Act I) and oppressive and war-torn 1942 (Act II). Against Camellia Koo’s innovative set of destructible paper orphanage walls and directed with sublime understanding by Alisa Palmer, Moscovitch’s truthful and nuanced dialogue tells the story of The Children’s Republic with great dexterity and heart, creating characters so palpably real it’s all you can do to not leap out of your chair and try to save them.
As the central doctor and philosopher of childhood education, Peter Hutt is the best I’ve ever seen the stage veteran. His smart and tender performance contains a lightness and optimism that’s key to the character’s investment in children. The subtlety in Hutt’s performance is what makes it so superb, he maintains a wonderfully dry humour as long as he can; a slow descent into illness and hopelessness is fought bravely with head held high. Korczak proclaims that children have the right to learn, love, make mistakes and be treated as full human beings, not just future ones, something that Hutt’s intelligent kindness champions throughout the play.
Moscovitch gives her child characters those very rights in her character development. Misha, Mettya, Sara and Israel are the true stars of the piece, complicated children who learn, love, make mistakes and function through more grief and anger than countless “full human beings” put together. Elliott Larson particularly stands out with his soulful performance as Misha, the reluctantly fragile orphan whose heartbeat proves one of Korczak’s most fundamental points. Mark Correia is also wonderful in The Children’s Republic‘s most demanding role, that of the doctor’s volatile new charge Israel, a severely damaged street kid with overdeveloped instincts to both fight and flee in equal measure. His understated love story with Katie Frances Cohen’s optimistic and caring Mettya is a brilliantly humanizing element, sweetly conveying the gentleness Korczak’s fighting to bring out in Israel. Emma Burke-Kleinman rounds out the group of children with her quietly hurting performance as the violin prodigy Sara.
The final piece to the puzzle is Korczak’s deadpan and steadfast assistant Stefa, played with the perfect mix of no-nonsense strength and aching sympathy by the superb Kelli Fox. Amy Rutherford’s kindly Madame Singer is the least interesting presence on stage, though the purpose she serves in establishing Korczak’s educational priorities is a fascinating one.
The Children’s Republic is one of those pieces of theatre that stays with you, haunting your thoughts as you exit the Tarragon Mainspace. It’s a look back at one of the most terrifying pieces of human history and a celebration of a good man fighting for the survival and success of the next generation.