Review of The Good Ship St. Louis at Upstream Theater

    Upstream Theater is presenting the world premiere of The Good Ship St. Louis, an impressive and moving new play by Philip Boehm with original music by Anthony Barilla. The work is a fervent plea for sympathy toward people in need of asylum.

    The play takes its name from the MS St. Louis, a passenger ship formerly operated by the Hamburg America Line (also known as HAPAG). On May 13, 1939, the ship left Hamburg carrying 900 Jewish refugees who had purchased “landing permits” to enter Cuba. These documents were not honored when the ship reached its destination. The United States and Canada also refused to admit the refugees, forcing the ship to return to Europe.

    Eventually, the passengers were allowed to disembark in Antwerp and resettle in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain. Only the last of these countries provided lasting safety during the war.

    The play opens in contemporary St. Louis with a framing story told by Susan, who has just lost her parents to COVID-19. While sifting through the objects in her parents’ attic, Susan stumbled upon an old suitcase. She would have discarded it if she had not a rattle from inside the suitcase.

    In it she found a pair of opera glasses, two letters in foreign languages, newspaper clippings from 1939s, a steamship ticket, and a document bearing the stamp of the department of immigration in Havana.

    The next scene cuts to Herbert and Rosa, a married Jewish couple boarding the St. Louis in 1939. A mention of the opera glasses makes it clear that Herbert and Rosa are central characters in Susan’s past.

    The script interleaves scenes involving the experiences of

    • Herbert, Rosa, and others aboard the St. Louis
    • Susan as she investigates what she found in the suitcase
    • Other refugees
    • Ordinary people responding to what they read about asylum seekers

    Projections designed by Brian McLelland and Mona Sabau introduce the scenes, ensuring that changes in the setting are always clear to the audience.

    The Upstream cast is excellent. Kari Ely captures the grief-fueled compulsion that drives Susan forward in her search for answers. Jeff Cummings and Nancy Bell evoke great pathos as the story of Herbert and Rosa demonstrates the devastating consequences of the lack of compassion shown to people whose lives are in danger.

    Sarah Burke and Tom Wethington portray another Jewish couple whose story takes a tragic turn even sooner than Herbert and Rosa’s. Kathleen Sitzer is Charlotte H., member a well-to-do Jewish family who is used to being waited on.

    The play’s scope is not limited, however, to these characters or this incident. Refugees from Bosnia, Syria, and Ukraine speak about what forced them to seek asylum. These powerful stories make it clear that the experience of refugees demands our sympathy regardless of their origin or destination.

    Eric J. Conners is Jasmin, who came to St. Louis from Bosnia. Sitzer is Leyla, a Syrian now living in Lebanon. Burke is Lidia, a Ukrainian Latin teacher whose knowledge of a dead language helped her more than once on her journey to Sacramento. Conners doubles as Vernon, a contemporary St. Louisan who recalls a strike at a nut company where his grandmother found work after coming to St. Louis in the Great Migration from the South in the 1920s. The black women who started the strike were joined by women from Poland.

    Peter Mayer portrays Gustav Schröder, the captain of the St. Louis, who is a steadfast champion of decency. The two stewards on the ship are opposites. Christopher Hickey’s Schiendick is a conniving member of the Nazi party. Conners’ Leo Jockl is an ally of the captain’s who has a secret to protect.

    Boehm’s cleverest device is the use of three characters with similar-sounding names in four parallel scenes about how people respond to news about the plight of refugees. The four scenes take place in:

    • A café in Havana in 1939
    • A café in St. Louis in 1939
    • An exclusive country club in St. Louis in 1994
    • A café in St. Louis in 2022

    The characters in these scenes are played by

    • Wethington as Benito, Benny, Benedict, and Ben, who are interested mainly in sports or entertainment news
    • Hickey as Federico, Freddie, Frederick, Fred, who keep up with the news of the world
    • Miranda Jagles Felix as Maria, Marie, Mary, and Marisa: three waitresses and a woman who might have been a waitress in other circumstances

    In the last of these scenes, Boehm points out our economy’s dependence on immigrants to fill poorly-paid service jobs.

    Barilla’s songs are deeply felt responses to the emotional thrust of the action. The accompaniment and incidental music are played by musical director Henry Palkes and cellists Coco Wicks and Ethan Edwards.

    The admirable designers and coaches include Laura Fine Hawkes (set), Laura Hanson (costumes), Steve Carmichael (lighting), Michaelina Miller (properties), Anthony Barilla (sound), and Aparna Kalyanaraman (movment),

    The Good Ship St. Louis continues through November 20 at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo courtesy of Upstream Theater
    From left: Jeff Cummings as Herbert and Nancy Bell as Rosa in
    The Good Ship St. Louis.