Production Timeline of The Little Lion

Since a photo is said to be worth a thousand words, this newsletter will be a photo collage dedicated to the many individuals who gave countless hours to bring The Little Lion, my young adult historical novel, to life on the stage. Chief among them would be Tom Width, artistic director for Swift Creek Mill Theatre, who also directed the world premiere of The Little Lion, as well as Irene Ziegler, who wrote the literary adaptation. Tom skillfully used Irene’s incisive manuscript, which stretched the work into new territory and anchored it in historical perspective, creating a powerful play that will live on in any viewer’s memory.  I’m reminded of the scripture, attributed to Jesus:

…except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24 (King James Version)

O'Neill 314 – Tom.Irene.Nancy

Tom, Irene, and I documented the moment standing in the Swift Creek Mill Theatre after agreeing that Irene would write The Little Lion stage adaptation.

Thank You

There simply are no words to express my appreciation for the many cast members, some of whom played multiple roles, portraying the characters so realistically that every audience was reduced to tears. I witnessed firsthand the steep emotional price every actor paid for the dedication to their craft. Thank you to each and every person on stage, behind the scenes, as well as staff members working in the office and dining room, or anyone  who helped in any way to shed light on a story that will live on forever due to their diligent belief in the power of the stage.

Robyn O’Neill captured breathtaking photos of the play while the cast was rehearsing.

Special appreciation goes to the members of the Moshe and Israel Gillman families of Canada and Florida respectively. Without their permission to tell the fateful story of Labaile Gillman, there would have been no book or play. 

From Book to Play: A Timeline of The Little Lion

Before Opening Night

Katherine S. Wright, who was part of the cast for The Little Lion, sketched some of the actors during the rehearsals of the play. Click the images to enlarge:

Opening Night

The emotion I felt at seeing Dr. Sara Gillman Pliamm (a child in the play) stand up after the first performance is impossible to describe. Having Dr. Pliamm, then 75, surrounded by ten additional Gillman family members, on opening night, January 30, 2016, was an author’s dream come to life.

little lion cast with ambassadors

Anne E. Derse, former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, and Rolandas Kriščiūnas, current Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S., along with me and the Gillman descendants. On the left is Etty Gillman Bienstock (purple sweater), daughter of Israel and Sheina Gillman; her son and daughter-in-law, Neil Bienstock and Deborah, and their children, Rachel, Samson, and Ryan, who is standing by me. On the right is Dr. Liuba Gillman Grossman, daughter of Moshe and Sheina Gillman and sister to Dr. Sara Pliamm, along with her children, Drs. Bob and Ruth Grossman, as well as Dr. Sara Gillman Pliamm and her daughter, Dr. Naomi Pliamm.

Other memorable individuals attended opening night, including Anne E. Derse, former  U. S. ambassador to Lithuania. Anne hosted a dinner and book signing for me at the U.S. Embassy headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania, and arranged a week of book presentations for Izzy’s Fire in 2010. Although retired, she has continues to tirelessly support my work. She introduced Rolandas Kriščiūnas, current Lithuanian Ambassador to the U. S., to the audience on opening night. Both of them addressed the audience prior to the first curtain going up.

Neil and Sara Belle November, my guardian angels for many years, continued their support by providing funding to help produce the show.

THE LITTLE LION Novembers with Cast

Cast members of The Little Lion and I share a photo opportunity with Neil and Sara Belle November following the first matinee on January 31, 2016. Tom Width and the cast delivered a birthday cake to Sara Belle, who turned 88, and sang to her prior to the show.

The Beginning

The seed for The Little Lion: A Hero in the Holocaust was originally planted in 2006 when I started classes at Hollins University, pursuing an MFA in Children’s Literature. Sadly, my original critical analysis advisor,              Dr. J.D. Stahl, died before I could complete the thesis process. Dr. Tina Hanlon, a professor at Ferrum College and also an instructor at Hollins, joined forces with Karen Adams, another instructor at Hollins, who took on the gargantuan task of directing my thesis. Karen and Tina shepherded the book and me to the finish line. I will be forever grateful for their belief in my work.

Nancy wright beasley graduation (328)

My sons, Beau (on left) and Jason were on hand for my graduation from Hollins in 2011.

Shortly after the book’s publication, Swift Creek Mill Theatre optioned it for the stage.Inspired by the young adult historical novel, Irene Ziegler wrote the stage adaptation, which ran January 30-March 5, 2016.


Media attention surrounded the play, especially since the venture included a local author, a local playwright, as well as a local theatre. The Little Lion was part of the Mill’s 50th anniversary season, which made it even more special. It was also showcased in the Acts of Faith Festival held at the November Theatre at the Virginia Rep Center.

Swift Creek Front Cover - 50 Years

Celia Wren wrote a truly amazing article (click here to read it) for the Richmond Times-Dispatch leading up to opening night. Clement Britt’s photos helped tell the story.

Snow blanketed Central Virginia, forcing some rehearsal cancellations. Opening night was the first time the cast had actually performed the entire play together.


Tom Width explains the new renovations to Swift Creek Mill to the ambassadors and special guests prior to opening the show.

Launch Party

A launch party, hosted by Frances Crutchfield at the Country Club of Virginia on February 13,  2016,  was held in celebration for both the book and as a tribute to the play. Special thanks to Jay Paul, my dear friend, and Maggie Beasley, my granddaughter, for the various photos of this fun event that was attended by family, friends, Tom Width and Irene Ziegler, as well as several cast members of the play.


I can’t find the words to thank Frances Crutchfield (far right) for honoring the book and the play. Also shown with me are long-time friends, Inge Horowitz (L) and Lisa Crutchfield.


The play opened to rave reviews (here is the first). Always a good community supporter, Swift Creek Mill Theatre agreed when I asked them to partner with me to raise funds for PolioPlus, a Rotary International initiative that provides polio inoculations to children worldwide. February 20 was chosen as the day to “Fill the Mill for PolioPlus.”  

fill the mill polio plus

Members of the Rotary Club of Brandermill, my club, helped me sell tickets, and we did, indeed, “Fill the Mill.” Numerous members from my church, Bon Air United Methodist, along with a variety of other organizations, like the Virginia Professional Communicators and representatives of the Central Virginia post-polio support group, came as well. They were joined by a busload of students from Nottoway Middle School, along with a host of friends, like Dr. Marcia Horn, who drove from New Jersey to support the play. Chief among the supporters would be Rotary clubs, especially those in District 7600. Extra thanks to James River Rotary and to Tom Wilkinson, president of Bon Air Rotary, for their special donations to the event that netted over $4,500 for PolioPlus.

Alex Keisch little lion

Alex Keisch (far left), a Holocaust survivor, provided a personal tour of the Virginia Holocaust Museum for a combined group of visitors from Temple Emmanuel, Ferrum College, and the Rotary Club of Roanoke Valley who came to see The Little Lion and support “Fill the Mill for PolioPlus.”

A cast party, complete with cake, brought The Little Lion to a close.

After the show ended, I was contacted by a writer for Draugas and interviewed. Draugas (which means friend) is a Lithuanian newspaper produced in Chicago. The editor ran two stories, one in English and another in Lithuanian in their internationally- circulated newspapers. The Little Lion was featured in photos and/or the Swift Creek Mill Theatre flyer on the front page of both newspapers.


The seeds planted at Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s production of The Little Lion continue to grow…

The Little Lion

By Irene Ziegler

Drama, Staged Reading | September 8 – September 9

This compelling drama by Virginia playwright Irene Ziegler is based on the novel by Nancy Wright Beasley, a Richmond author and scholar of the Holocaust. Set in and around the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania during World War II, this powerful story chronicles the struggle of a Jewish family to survive. Both book and play are fictionalized versions about actual people. The story centers on the heroism of Laibale Gillman, a teenage boy, known as The Little Lion because of his courage and tenacity to protect his family. MMT’s staged reading follows the world-premiere in 2016 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre in Chesterfield County.

Rated: PG 13 for Content

Friday, September 8 at 7 PM
Saturday, September 9 at 8 PM