Review: The Good Ship St. Louis Is a Hauntingly Effective Immigrant Story

Upstream Theater’s world premiere play reveals the stories of refugees seeking a new home

click to enlarge A woman dressed in contemporary clothing leans on a railing in the background as a woman dressed in 1940s styles, carrying a valise, walks by in a scene from the play The Good Ship St. Louis.
Courtesy Upstream Theater
A momentary glimpse back in time lets Susan (Kari Ely) see her grandmother Rosa K (Nancy Bell) and the valise that connects them.

One of the most disturbing outcomes of war is the displacement of people from their homes. Philip Boehm's heartfelt The Good Ship St. Louis tells the story of Jewish people seeking a new home and an opportunity to live without persecution. Produced by Upstream Theater, the world premiere play with music by Anthony Barilla is, at times, incredibly evocative and haunting.

Susan, a registered nurse, recently lost her parents to COVID-19 and is sorting through their attic when she finds a small valise. The case contains several items: newspaper clippings, a few letters, a very nice pair of opera glasses, and such. These lead her to discover the story of the MS St. Louis and her past.

In Hitler's Germany, Jews who could afford the passage were quickly filling ships and fleeing their homeland for safety. The 3,000 who boarded the MS St. Louis and two other ships departing in May 1939 were among the last allowed to leave. On board were Herbert, a German, and his Polish wife Rosa, a young couple in love and hopeful. Their journey takes them to Cuba, up the coast of the Americas and back toward Europe. Finally, they are allowed to disembark in Belgium. Soon, the same war they fled arrives on their new doorstep.

click to enlarge A woman in a 1940’s outfit, featuring a dress, fur coat and hat, talks and points her finger at a crew member, dressed in a uniform, in a scene from the play The Good Ship St. Louis.
Courtesy Upstream Theater
Charlotte H (Kathleen Sitzer) a passenger, emphatically shares her list of requests with crew member Leo Jockl (Eric J Conners).

Kari Ely is transparently vulnerable and innately curious as Susan, and she is our emotional guide through the densely layered show. Jeff Cummings and Nancy Bell are a touch ethereal and so well matched as Herbert and Rosa. We easily feel their every reaction, fear, disappointment and hope. Peter Mayer brings gravitas and a touch of humility to Captain Gustav Schröder, though he has the thankless task of doing much of the narration. Eric J. Conners, Kathleen Sitzer, Christopher Hickey, Sarah Burke, Tom Wethington and Miranda Jagles-Felix offer strong support in a variety of roles.

Unfortunately, it is the "variety of roles" that proves problematic. The carefully crafted script contains the seeds of stories for so many traveling on the ship, presenting a perfect opportunity to show more and tell less. Playwright Boehm does himself as director and the performers a disservice by introducing too many other immigrant stories. In this reviewer's opinion, the over-inclusion treats these stories as a bit of an afterthought, diminishing their importance. The production includes a number of transformative and deeply moving scenes involving the primary story. Creating more space for resonance through a single focus may better build empathy for broader truths about war and its refugee victims.

No matter where in the world the fighting occurs, war inevitably causes the loss of life and home for those in its path, creating a wave of immigrant refugees seeking a new home. Such was the case for the Jews who embarked on the cruise liner MS St. Louis, as well as the thousands of current refugees just beginning a life in a new country or still looking for a place to call home.

Catch Upstream Theater's The Good Ship St. Louis at the Marcelle Theater (3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, upstreamtheater.org) through Sunday, November 20. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $25 to $35.

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About The Author

Tina Farmer

Tina Farmer is a longtime critic who has spent the last decade reviewing productions for KDHX. She is also very involved with the St. Louis Theater Circle, which supports the theater community by organizing annual awards that honor the best local productions.
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