October 20, 2019

‘Never Is Now’ Explores the Holocaust in a Contemporary Context

Cast: Michael Kaczkowski, Joey Millin, Evie Abat, Eliza Blair, Sara Tubert, Adam Foster Ballard; Photo by Ed Krieger

Harrowing Holocaust survivor stories are told within a chilling contemporary prism in playwright Wendy Kout’s “Never Is Now,” a world-premiere production at the Skylight Theatre in Hollywood that gives new context to her 2017 play, “Survivors.”

In the original version, commissioned by the JCC CenterStage Theater in Rochester, N.Y., six actors enact 10 stories based on local Shoah survivors’ video testimonies and interviews with their family members. The play also has been performed for middle-school grades and above.

In “Never Is Now,” a diverse cast, including a Filipina, an African American and a deaf woman with partial facial paralysis, play actors, a playwright and a director rehearsing “Survivors.” They break character to comment on the stories they’re telling as they realize there are unsettling parallels between those stories and their own lives in America today.

“There’s no comparing the Holocaust — the systematic extermination of a people — to what’s happening in our country now and the threat to our democracy now,” Kout told the Journal. “But we are comparing those connections to fascism. This was an opportunity for me to continue to tell the story of the Holocaust, which I’m on a mission to do, but do it through a modern prism. To do this work is so meaningful to all of us right now, to encourage the conversation, and certainly, action.”

Although she does not have Holocaust survivors in her Russian-Jewish family, Kout grew up with many friends who did, “and that made a particular impact on me,” she said. Living in the Bay Area, she experienced anti-Semitism at school, returning to class after the High Holy Days to find “kike” written on her locker and other anti-Semitic notes. School officials were indifferent, but her mother acted swiftly by moving the family to Sherman Oaks, where Kout was elected president of her class at Milken Middle School. Kout currently lives in Santa Barbara with her husband, a writer she calls “my bashert.”

Director Tony Abatemarco and playwright Wendy Kout (seated, left) with cast members Michael Kaczkowski, Joey Millin, Eliza Blair, Sarah Tubert, Adam Foster Ballard, Evie Abat. Photo by Ed Krieger

Born in Chicago, Kout was raised in a Reform Jewish home. “I was told that I didn’t need to believe in God, that what was important [was] that I be a good person and I do good acts, and that’s what being a good Jew is,” she said. Her family often moved before ultimately landing in Los Angeles. Her parents always joined a synagogue and became active members wherever they lived.

“They’d take me to Friday night services and ask me what I learned from the rabbi,” she said. “On those Friday night drives, I was beginning to understand themes in sermons and storytelling.” She wanted to tell her own stories early on, and her parents and older brother encouraged her creativity, as did her teachers.

“When I was a child, I used to create little plays in our backyard. We had a yard full of reeds and I remember doing a baby  Moses play,” she said. Years later, Kout went to UCLA, did graduate work at USC in writing and literature, and found her way into television, writing for “Mork & Mindy” and “9 to 5.”

Kout feels strongly about “bringing Jewish themes, characters, to life” on the big screen, little screen and stage. She wrote and produced the sitcom “Anything but Love,” with Richard Lewis as the Jewish romantic lead; wrote the movie “Dorfman in Love,” starring Elliott Gould as a widowed Jewish father; and wrote the play “We Are the Levinsons.” “It’s drawn from my parents’ last chapter,” she said. Now, she’s immersed in theater and loves it. “The playwright is respected,” she said. “It’s quite a gift.”

Kout hopes both “Survivors” and “Never Is Now” — the title of which is taken from the line “Never forget! Never again! Never is now!” in the script — will continue to be produced in theaters and as a teaching tool in schools and elsewhere, such as the Museum of Tolerance. “For me, it’s about how do we get to the kids, because that’s the next generation. These are themes that are so important for kids to hear about,” she said, adding that following selected matinee performances, there will be discussions on various topics. There also are plans to have a sign language interpreter at two performances.

Kout believes audience members will get different things from the play. “For some people, it can be an education about the chronology of the Holocaust. For others, it can be a warning about what is happening in our present. For others, it could ignite activism. What we hope is that it will at least encourage conversation. You begin with conversation, and that can take you in many different places,” she said. “I am ever inspired by our capacity to change: our world, our country and ourselves. ‘Never Is Now’ explores the perilous past through the prism of our perilous present as a warning for our future.”

“Never Is Now” runs Sept. 21-Oct. 27 at the Skylight Theatre. Visit the website for
reservations.