What Helps Lexi Rabadi Bring the Unknown Story of a World War II Hero to Life in Hannah Senesh

Interview   What Helps Lexi Rabadi Bring the Unknown Story of a World War II Hero to Life in Hannah Senesh
From the theatre that debuted Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof, comes the true tale of a woman who escaped the Holocaust only to return to war-torn Hungary to save her mother.
Lexi Rabadi in <i>Hannah Senesh</i>
Lexi Rabadi in Hannah Senesh Victor Nechay

“I feel that I’ve been handed this torch,” says Lexi Rabadi of her role in the current revival of Hannah Senesh, which runs through August 18. “I have the gift of passing it on every night to each and every audience member, should they choose to hold out their palm.”

Though Rabadi is young, a 2016 graduate of Pace University, this is the exactly the type of story she was searching to tell.

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Senesh’s life story begins at the end: with Senesh’s mother Catherine (also played by Rabadi) reflecting on her daughter’s death. As the play flashes back to Senesh at age 13, audiences learn that she left Hungary for Israel—leaving her mother behind—to escape the dangers of what would become the Holocaust. But when a friend told her about the British Army’s World War II mission to parachute into Yugoslavia to attempt to provide aid to Jewish communities, Senesh voluntarily joined the forces to go back to Hungary and rescue her mother.

Rabadi glides masterfully through the story, creating a fluidity in Senesh’s story from ages 13 to 23—never compromising the essence of Senesh herself.

This revival hits the stage more than 75 years after Senesh made the dangerous journey and 30 years after writer-director David Schechter and original Hannah Senesh, Lori Wilner, first premiered the show in 1984. Yet as Rabadi plays her, Senesh’s history remains poignant tale to this day.

“This story will be relevant as long as there are people in the world who connect with roots of otherness, minorities who are disparaged and downright oppressed,” says Rabadi.

As the story goes, Catherine was captured alongside her daughter by Hungarian officers as a tactic to get the young woman to speak, but the perseverant Senesh refused. “As someone who has a wonderful relationship with my own mother, the way that Hannah and Catherine do, nothing can prepare you for telling a story like this,” she says. “As I get to play Catherine for just those brief and seemingly fleeting moments [at the end], it gives me such a great deal of context to have just played her daughter for 90 minutes and really understand what she has gone through on that level.”

Lexi Rabadi in <i>Hannah Senesh</i>
Lexi Rabadi in Hannah Senesh Victor Nechay

A tight-knit relationship with her mother is not the only bond the actor shares with the war hero she portrays.

Senesh’s own diaries, including her poetry, serve as the script for the play; a poet herself, Rabadi feels their writing bonds them. “Lately when I come home and write, I feel as if it is directly to her or sometimes even as her. I can’t not hear her voice in my head,” she admits. “When I get to speak her words, I identify so strongly with that itch that she scratches through her writing and it allows me to connect with her on a much deeper level.”

The source material lends itself to the compositions and arrangements of Steven Lutvak, whose melodies accompany the play with music.

Although Hannah Senesh plays as a solo show, Rabadi urges that the show would not be what it is without this team by her side—or one particular prop. Aside from Rabadi, a piece of white and blue fabric is the only constant onstage.

As a young teenager, Senesh buys it in an attempt to sew her own dress. But it stands in for the water she dances in after arriving in Israel to become closer to her Jewish heritage and the parachute she uses to complete her mission. In the show‘s final moments, Catherine leaves it resting on the chair of her daughter’s desk.

Rabadi acknowledges the fabric’s importance, not only to the show, but to its symbolic ties to Senesh herself. “The blue and white fabric serves as the magic carpet that takes us on the journey through every phase of Hannah’s life,” the actor says. “She brings it with her through every chapter of her life because she never lets go of her relationship with humanity.”

One final element gives Rabadi courage to step into the role each night: the audience. In such an intimate space in the heart of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, she feeds off of their palpable energy.

“It’s just me and them sharing a life in all of its messy truth, moment by moment, page by page, so I crave that energy. I feel like I’ve finally gotten to embrace my scene partner.”

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