Review: Hana’s Suitcase (Young People’s Theatre)

Hana’s Suitcase, on stage in Toronto, looks at the Holocaust from a child’s perspective

When a child’s suitcase arrives at the tiny Children’s Holocaust Centre in Tokyo, curator Fumiko Ishioka (played by Jennifer Villaverde) embarks on an extraordinary journey to uncover the story of Hana Brady (played by Caroline Toal) and her fate at the hands of the Nazis. Hana’s Suitcase, a true story – and originally a radio documentary and international best-selling book – opens the 50th anniversary season at Young People’s Theatre. 

The atrocities of the Holocaust are, obviously, difficult topics to discuss. It is even more difficult to explain what happened to an audience of children. Hana’s Suitcase introduces the topic by telling a single story, Hana’s, instead of getting into political discussions or a general overview. Hana is a typical eleven-year-old, and children should easily relate to her. We get to see some of her artwork, we learn how she wanted to be a teacher growing up, and we see her playing with a scooter and her doll. Hana could be any child.

There is also a “story within a story” buffer. The curator, Fumiko, is helping two young children, Maiko (Lisa Truong) and Akira (Jeff Ho), discover what happened to Hana. Maiko and Akira serve as surrogates for what children in the audience may be feeling. They are warned that Hana’s story may be scary, and have a sad ending, but both decide it is important to learn anyway. They get angry when they learn about the conditions in the ghettos and of Hana’s sad fate at Auschwitz. They affirm that these feelings are normal, and okay to have. It’s a good way of explaining such touchy subjects to kids. In addition, Akira provides some much needed levity to the tale, but in a respectful manner.

The set is fantastic. A wall stretches across the stage, with doors and a walkway above, and Subtle changes to that wall change it into a train, or a wall in Tokyo in 2000, or a doorway in Czechoslovakia in 1939. Sometimes the walls are lit from behind and used for shadow play, other times they’re used as a backdrop for projections. Their multipurpose nature keeps the play fresh and interesting.

The projections are also used in a way that complements the story. Whenever Fumiko or the kids are looking at a piece of artwork, a picture, or a list in a record book, what they’re looking at is projected on the screen. I find with some shows the projections don’t further the plot and are only used because they can be used; here, though, they serve an important function.

In case you are considering bringing your kids and are wondering if they’ll be able to sit through it, the show runs for eighty-five minutes, and gives children a quick, two minute stretch break in the middle.

Hana’s Suitcase is a great way to introduce the difficult topic of the Holocaust to children. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike.


    • Hana’s Suitcase is playing until October 30, 2015 at Young People’s Theatre (165 Front Street E)
    • Shows are matinees. Weekend matinees are Oct. 10 & 25 at 2:30pm, October 18 at 11:00am and 2:30pm. School matinees (open to the public) are Mondays at 1:00pm, Tuesdays-Thursdays 10:15am and 1:00pm (1:00pm only on Oct. 13), and Fridays at 10:15am.
    • Ticket prices range from $10 – $34, plus HST and service charges, with a PWYC on Oct. 18 at 11:00am
    • Tickets available online, or through the box office at 416-862-2222
    • Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Photo of Noah Spitzer and Caroline Toal with the ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.