Mill Mountain Theatre’s production of Irene Zeigler’s “The Little Lion” broke from its normal fare considerably during its Friday-Saturday run and produced a challenging work on the small Waldron Stage. Both performances of the limited run were sold out.
This is a script-in-hand production, directed by MMT’s Travis Kendrick. It features Christopher Castanho in the title role. Castanho was last seen in this summer’s productions of “The Jungle Book” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He is Resident Creative and Teaching Artist at MMT. His character works to save his family against multiple forces. He gets solid support from a large cast of MMT conservatory education staff and local veterans of note, 17 actors in all. Those locals include strong performances from Mary Jean Levin, Ed Sala, Chris Shepherd and Patrick Kennerly (in three challenging roles).
The Little Lion was a boy who became a hero in the Kovno, Lithuania, ghetto where Jews were herded by Nazis during World War II. In this telling, from a book by Nancy Wright Beasley (who, like Zeigler, is a Virginian), the Nazis are not the only villains, joining the Russian occupiers at the outset and non-Jewish Lithuanians throughout. It is a cruel and hateful rendering, crackling with tension and based upon actual events and people. The production was highlighted with large, lighted backdrops from the events, which were often frightening.
The Jews in this story made certain to document the daily events in their camp for the future and, like the Nazis, they were efficient in gathering material, painful and dangerous as it was.
There is often a sameness in the telling of Nazi atrocities, but “The Little Lion” gives us a valuable piece of history about collusion with evil that is certainly topical now. The Lithuanians’ own bigotry helped in their downfall.
This staged reading is one of a series of new events planned at Mill Mountain Theatre and is a welcome addition to the more popular main-stage fare. This is the kind of challenging, limited attraction play that has been the stock in trade for Roanoke’s highly-regarded Off the Rails Theatre, but for a regional professional theater, it would hardly pay the bills. Good theater, however, is what it’s all about and MMT continues to carry the message.