A stalwart hostess in 1950s Toronto, Ilsa has built a facade of genteel pleasantry. As she entertains her friend Helga and Helga’s great nephew Gunter, we gradually discover that her fancy tea set and pastries are refined bastions against terrible memories.
Presented by ZippySaid Productions, her. is a solo one-act, written and performed by Deborah Shaw, that gently immerses us in a mother’s experience of the Holocaust. We slowly realize that Gunter’s visit isn’t social. Having heard the dark rumours about Ilsa’s past, he uses Helga’s friendship as a Trojan horse for his interrogation.
Shaw is a commanding presence, offering us a glimpse of trauma in restrained, carefully modulated changes in demeanour. Even as she finally reveals the full extent of her story to Gunter and her persona falters, she never loses her composure, never lets herself collapse into hysteria, yet she makes the cost of this dutifully maintained poise clear to us.
As Ilsa tells Gunter about her youth and early adulthood in a provincial German town, she paints a very vivid portrait of two world wars that loom large in her life. Shaw’s script establishes Ilsa an articulate storyteller, though this particular format has limitations that lessen some of the impact of her narrative.
Shaw does a fine job of conjuring Helga and Gunter in our minds’ eye, but the telling of her story is, ultimately, to us. She never breaks the fourth wall though—which is, for me anyway, the biggest advantage of a solo show. As she speaks to these imagined characters, repeating their questions and comments; it allows an emotional distance that lessons the intimacy, even in such a small venue.
The rumours about Ilsa’s past actions are also a little muddled. She avoids specifics as she gingerly dances around Gunter’s increasingly invasive questioning. We understand he is trying to coax a confession from her, though whatever myths have formed around the awful truth are frustratingly vague.
Dressed handsomely, wielding her pretty china in front of an ornate picture frame on the back wall, the aesthetic is one of elegant, cultivated domesticity. As the trauma at the heart of her tale reveals itself, these tokens begin to feel hollow and desperate. With deliberate and purposeful posturing, director David Agro maintains an atmosphere of steadily mounting tension and dread, though I wasn’t emotionally invested enough for the final revelation to be quite as devastating as intended.