Preview: Swift Creek’s “The Little Lion” Follows the Life of a Mechanic Among Nazis 

click to enlarge John Mincks plays Laibale Gillman, a teenage mechanic who spends his days fixing Nazi motorcycles and his nights smuggling human beings.

Robyn O'Neil

John Mincks plays Laibale Gillman, a teenage mechanic who spends his days fixing Nazi motorcycles and his nights smuggling human beings.

Avraham Tory was on a mission.

Months earlier, Tory escaped Lithuania’s Kovno ghetto and hid in a tiny barn. Immediately upon his liberation by the Russians, Tory returned to the ruined ghetto and located three of the five crates he’d buried. These boxes held pictures taken of the ghetto with a hidden camera, sketches and Tory’s meticulous diary, which would help convict Nazis and Lithuanian officials of war crimes.

This burying of evidence is one episode in Irene Ziegler’s “The Little Lion,” a play that saw its world premiere last week at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. Adapted from Nancy Wright Beasley’s young adult novel of the same name, the work focuses on Laibale Gillman, a teenage mechanic who fixed Nazi motorcycles and helped at least eight people to safety.

“He was brave beyond all comprehension,” says Beasley, who featured Gillman in her earlier novel, “Izzy’s Fire,” as a more minor character. “His story begged to be told individually.”

The Kovno ghetto held as many as 40,000 people at its peak, most of whom were either shot or sent to concentration and extermination camps. On a single day, Oct. 29, 1941, roughly 10,000 Jews were shot at a nearby fort. Because the Nazis needed his mechanical know-how to keep their motorcycles running, Gillman was able to keep himself and his family alive for a time.

Tom Width, the show’s director and Swift Creek’s artistic director, says the motorcycle-riding Gillman was a bit of a rebel, and that this story had plenty of distinctive elements to differentiate it from other Holocaust tales.

“The horrors of this are unique,” Width says. “You can’t believe that people are doing these kinds of things to people.”

For John Hagadorn, who portrays Dr. Elkes in the show and serves as a docent at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the play is a moving entry point into the conflict.

“It is a touching story of the life of a family caught up in the horror of the Nazi invasion into Lithuania, the terror it produced and the humanity that evolved from that tragedy,” says Hagadorn, who also led some of the show’s 22-member cast on a tour of the museum. It has three exhibit rooms dedicated to the Kovno Ghetto. “It’s very powerful.”

In her adaptation, playwright Ziegler says she added the theme of art saving lives. In researching the ghetto, Ziegler was surprised by the ethnic cleansing efforts undertaken by the Lithuanians before the Nazis arrived.

“I was greatly disturbed by that,” Ziegler says, adding that she hopes the audience takes away a message that reflects current global affairs. “I think that they’ll draw parallels to the refugee situation in Syria — how we still scapegoat groups for no other reason than they’re different.”

Opening night of the show included a number of VIPs, including Gillman’s niece Dr. Sara Gillman Pliamm, the current Lithuanian ambassador to America and the former U.S. ambassador to Lithuania.

“Every single person that went through this has a story,” Width says. “These stories need to be told.” S

“The Little Lion” plays through March 5 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17402 Jefferson Davis Highway. For information, visit swiftcreekmill.com or call 748-5203.

This story has been updated to correct some inaccuracies regarding the central character; also Sara Gillman Pliamm was Gillman's niece not sister. Style regrets the errors.

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