Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany is a one-woman adaptation of the book of the same name. Eleanor’s father accepts a job in Germany, and the whole family sets sail from New York harbour in September 1939. By the time they arrive, World War II has broken out – and the family is thus trapped in Nazi Germany.
The production benefits from a close connection to the material presented, as the performer, Ingrid Garner, is the granddaughter of the eponymous Eleanor. This is especially important, given that the subject of life in Nazi Germany has been so extensively portrayed across theatre, literature and film; for a modern audience that has grown up with stories and images of this period, a fresh perspective is all but essential if a show is to deliver new resonance.
The stage is simply set, with two chairs and a travelling chest, which are rearranged as needed to represent – among other things – a cellar and garden furniture. Garner, wearing a simple dress, moves about the stage with confidence, and the performance is carefully choreographed throughout. She ably captures the changing physicality of Eleanor as she ages from a child of 9 to a young woman of 15 and 16.
Garner provides a snapshot of what life was like for her grandmother by selective use of the events that she experienced – and these events are performed well. The story begins with Eleanor enjoying an idyllic childhood in New Jersey, as the turmoil of world events passes by her in her innocence. This innocence is gradually chipped away by the experiences she faces in Germany, and her struggles to retain her American identity while the country she is in wages war with her homeland.
Unfortunately, the performance can only feature a small number of events from the extensive period spanned by the story. As a result, it asks more questions than it answers, and I felt I'd received a very incomplete idea of what life was like for Eleanor. Part of the problem is that many of the chosen scenes are universal to those who lived in Berlin during this time; it would have been interesting to hear more about how the family's German-American origins affected their day-to-day lives, or indeed what life was like for Eleanor once she returned to the United States.
Eleanor’s Story is an engaging production, well-performed and greatly enhanced by the personal connection of the actress with the source material. But the uniqueness of the Eleanor's experience is not fully reflected by a play that focuses too much on common, universal realities of life in Hitler’s Germany.