Let’s say you and your family and others you know, maybe around 35,000 people, are forced to live in a neighborhood smaller than the town of Ashland, surrounded by barbed wire, with limited electricity and without water or toilets. How long can you survive? The better question is: Can you get out of what appears to be an impossible situation?
Eleven years ago, Nancy Wright Beasley, then a columnist for this magazine, published an account of fear and triumph in her book "Izzy’s Fire: Finding Humanity in the Holocaust." That story concerned a family who saved 13 Jews from death and encompassed different family members. Her young adult novel "The Little Lion," which came out in November, pertains to one family. And though it’s based in fact, Beasley, largely due to gaps in the record and memories, created connections, making the book a historical novel. Actor and writer Irene Ziegler (a 2010 recipient of Richmond magazine's Theresa Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts) adapted "The Little Lion" into a play that opens Jan. 28 and runs through March 5 as part of the 50th anniversary season at Swift Creek Mill Theatre in southern Chesterfield County. (Tickets are $38, or $55 with the buffet; 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, 748-5203.)
“The story is based upon a young man who had the courage of a lion,” Beasley says. “He was able to get family members out of the Kovno [Lithuania] ghetto.”
At the center of the story is a Jewish teenager named Laibale Gillman, who defied the Nazis by slipping through barbed wire enclosing the ghetto at night to bring back food and medicine.
“What kept him alive was the fact that he was a mechanical genius,” Beasley explains. “The Germans needed him as a motorcycle mechanic.”
In Gillman’s valiant efforts to save lives, Ziegler saw a struggle hearkening back to myth — “which is why I named his motorcycle ‘Icarus,’ ” she says. Ziegler came into the process as part of a Swift Creek commission. She passed along pieces of the work to Tom Width, the theater’s artistic director, until a full play emerged. “Nancy told me, ‘Irene, make it yours. And by making it yours, it’ll be ours.’ She was generous.”
The backstory, as they say, about Beasley and her books comes out of surviving polio as a youth with devoted parents who insisted on education, though her father was illiterate. She wrote nonfiction and journalism for 25 years. At 39, she completed a bachelor’s degree and at 46 she became a widow. In 2000, at age 60, she graduated from the VCU School of Mass Communications. While writing "Izzy’s Fire," Beasley began to think about writing stories for younger readers. She wrote "The Little Lion" as her thesis novel for the Hollins University master of fine arts program in children’s literature. However, adults are also reading it; Ferrum College English professor Melvin Macklin is using the book for a Holocaust course and for a community class he is teaching on the subject at Temple Emanuel in Roanoke.
Among the audiences at Swift Creek will be schoolchildren who will see that although the world can be cruel and people venal and self-centered, examples of positive action show what people are capable of.