When Aimee Hayes, producing artistic director of Southern Rep Theatre, was presented with the script for "Freedom," she expected nothing less than a beautiful, heartfelt story. She knew Sean Patterson and Joyce Pulitzer, two of the play's four playwrights, so she wasn't surprised by how moved she was upon reading their words.
"I adore this story," Hayes said. "It will personally resonate with anyone who has family tales of how their ancestors came to be part of this nation."
With its world premiere Friday, July 12, at the Contemporary Arts Center, the play tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and an Irish immigrant who meet by chance a few hours before their American naturalization ceremony. Through the pain of their pasts, they forge a bond that reveals they are more alike than different.
"Freedom," which runs through July 28, concludes Southern Rep's 26th Season Lagniappe Series.
Written by Pulitzer, Patterson and the late David Seelig and Kitty Greenberg, it is partly based on survivor testimony. As one might expect from the title, its message is one of freedom - not just "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but freedom to face the truth of one's self with grace, acceptance and forgiveness.
"It's a touching story of a woman who survives the Holocaust with her mother and a man from Ireland tortured by his own demons," Hayes said.
Directed by Mark Routhier, "Freedom" stars Lorraine LeBlanc as Yetta Straus and John Neisler as Danny McCabe. Straus is an elderly Jewish woman, McCabe a middle-aged man from a Northern Ireland ghetto. Despite their differences, their mutual pain results in friendship, and the two share details of their lives that they likely would never reveal to their own families.
As serious as "Freedom" is, the play is not without humor.
"I think they are both very witty characters," Hayes said. "They have a lot of fun bumping up against each other. It creates some comic elements."
Pulitzer began writing "Freedom" in 1998, working on it on and off while also writing the comedy "Life, Liberty and Social Security" with Seelig and Bernard Burk. Pulitzer invited Seelig to help her with "Freedom," because she knew he could fill in that which was missing.
"He was brilliant and funny," Pulitzer said. "He made dull things very interesting, and I enjoyed working with him."
Despite Seelig's illness, the two worked on the play twice a week. Greenberg, who had worked as a drama instructor at Isidore Newman School, eventually joined in the effort, though she, too, was ill.
"It was like an out-of-body experience," Pulitzer said, "and the only thing you think of is, ‘You've got a goal out there.' The baby was the play. Then we lost David, and I was so grateful to have Kitty."
Patterson became the fourth writer after participating in a reading of "Freedom" at Pulitzer's home.
"Then we lost Kitty, and Sean and I completed it," she said. "I promised David and Kitty that I would produce it, and that's what I'm doing."
Pulitzer said she got the idea for "Freedom" while serving as chairman of the New Orleans chapter of the Anti-Defamation League in the 1990s. The experience gave her the opportunity to work with people of varied ethnicities, religions and races, and their stories resonated.
"This is a remarkable country," she said. "You can be Irish, Jewish, Latino, black, white. Everyone is a different nationality, and people don't pay attention. And you know why? Because this is America.
"My own father brought over two people from Germany, and my paternal grandparents came over from Europe," she said.
Hayes said she fell in love with "Freedom," in part, because of her own fascination with genealogy.
"It made me think about my family, my great-great-grandmother who at the age of 16, by herself, made her way to Indiana (from Ireland)," Pulitzer said.
Patterson said he was drawn to the project by "the underlying spirit of hope" in the characters.
"Their suffering is at once unimaginable and all too real, and yet they persevere," he said.