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Family's past in Theresienstadt becomes 'Signs of Life'

A striking number of artistic endeavors begin when individuals go looking for clues about their familial past. Usually, that's the domain of the writer, such as Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated," a novel, movie and play about a young Jewish-American who goes looking for clues in the Ukraine. Mona Golabek's deeply stirring show, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," was a recent hit at the Royal George and told the story of her mother during World War II. The Tribune's Howard Reich wrote and narrated a documentary about his mother's hidden Holocaust experience, "Prisoner of Her Past."

But sometimes, it can be the domain of a producer. That is the case with Virginia Criste, the California lawyer behind a new musical in Chicago with an interesting provenance, "Signs of Life," opening Thursday on the main stage of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater.

In essence, Criste, who grew up in the North Shore suburb of Glencoe, went looking for the story of her own grandparents and found herself in the Nazi-imposed ghetto of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where her grandparents resided for a time. They had not been open about their experience. As was the case with many Holocaust survivors, the past was not discussed.

As Criste tells the story, the records of the ghetto had just been opened to the public during the Czech Republic presidency of Vaclav Havel. "They were only just acknowledging that this was a Jewish ghetto," Criste said. "They kind of let me run loose with their archives and gave me a lot of freedom. I started to realize that musical theater was integral to this ghetto."

A show started to form in Criste's head: a musical based on the life of Theresienstadt, with an exhibition in the lobby featuring real drawings created in Theresienstadt. She hired a creative team — a composer named Joel Derfner, the lyricist Len Schiff and librettist Peter Ullian — and went to work. "The first thing I was trying to achieve," she said, "was to see if I can find a way to allow people to viscerally experience what it might be like to get captured like this and then have to worry about making ethical choices and, at the same, time, try to survive."

"Signs of Life," subtitled "A Tale of Terezin," was workshopped in 2008 at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Wash., a venue well-known for tryouts. From there, it went to New York, where it opened off-Broadway in 2010 in the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA. The reviews were mixed. The show only lasted about four weeks. In The New York Times, freelance critic Neil Genzlinger praised the talent of the performers and the quality of the singing (not to mention the charms of the score), but wrote that the show "doesn't really find anything new in this sad slice of history, and it falls back on some familiar formulas to tell the tale." More damningly for the box office, he also described the piece as "a grim theatrical journey."

"This is not a show," Genzlinger wrote, "you come out of feeling entertained." That did not set the phones a-ringing.

Nonetheless, Criste's show had a lot of fans and people willing to back a further life. And so Criste has decided to mount a second production in Chicago, using local director Lisa Portes, different designers and a new cast. It is a commercial production (not Victory Gardens'), although the aims, it's fair to say, are different from just making money. Still, there is no subscription base and an unknown title. Reaching an audience will take work — and a decent show.

"A lot of people from Chicago had seen the show in New York," Criste said, "and they helped us mount it again. Really, we've made such major improvements. And Chicago is where I grew up."

An apt return home, perchance, for such a personal story. Works with similar topics have been supported here before. In 1999, the now-defunct Famous Door Theatre produced "Ghetto," a piece by Joshua Sobol set in the ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, another locale where art flourished amid incredible adversity.

The Tribune's Richard Christiansen called that Famous Door production "a triumph." Julia Neary, who is working with Portes on "Signs of Life," both choreographed and performed, memorably, in that "Ghetto" 14 years ago.

Through Oct. 27 at the Victory Gardens Biograph; $45-$65 at 773-871-3000 and

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