From the Artistic Director
It's been a singular joy to work with Thomas Keneally on his moving new play Either Or. A joy because we've watched the play mature, evolve and
Photo: Ari Roth in Cambridge on Theater J's recent London tour
grow into something towering and heart-breaking when, at first, it was perhaps a bit imposing and unwieldy. Now some may wonder why bother nurturing a new work that's, at first read, imperfect? Why not wait until some other theater does the work first and then pick up the production once it's been "tested?" Well, for one thing, we all would be deprived of the sheer privilege and pleasure of being in close contact with joyful Tom; master novelist and emerging playwright, whom we've taken to describing as "our Australian leprechaun," an ebullient, large-hearted raconteur and court jester. We've loved every moment of our collaboration, and all of us would be the poorer if we were to only have interacted with his playscript and not with the man himself on his road to discovery.
Further, there might not even be an Either Or without Theater J's involvement. The play, now bracing and towering, was, in its first iteration, perhaps a little too dark when it was first sent to a small handful of theaters by the agents at International Creative Management. But after a series of rewrites and a major workshop at the Kennedy Center last September under the direction of Daniel DeRaey, a conceptual overhaul of the opening scenes allowed for a new definition of the main character, Kurt Gerstein, the evangelical Christian youth leader who is now imbued with sunshine and hope and idealism as he strives to inject a moral dimension into the embattled church movement being challenged by the rise of the Third Reich.
In Either Or, Thomas Keneally has written his first work for the stage in decades and in his main character he's created the same kind of morally challenged protagonist that he did with Oskar Schindler for his landmark Schindler's List. Kurt Gerstein is both a participant and resister of the Third Reich. Keneally reveals the tragic nature of a good man's moral awakening as Gerstein is fatally compromised by his association with National Socialism. Keneally sees a contemporary analogue to the "many bureaucrats and technocrats in the Western world, including Australia and, obviously, the US, who were drawn into a policy they privately dissented from, [while watching] whistle-blowers disbelieved, discredited and destroyed." In expurgating some of the most painful details of Holocaust history—the mechanism by which Jews came to be efficiently gassed to death, and one man's attempt to sabotage the process while alerting the West as to what was transpiring—Keneally finds a way to tell a cautionary tale for our times. Today's intelligent political operative who finds himself carrying out a fatally flawed public policy may one day be, like Gerstein, complicit and unable to halt his country's murderous turn.
After doing a first in-house staff reading of Either Or while Tom was still in Australia, I emailed Keneally to express my admiration for the project, but also pointed to certain story-telling challenges I thought would need to be addressed should we wish to go forward. In an email to me dated January 30, 2006, Tom replied:
"Your notes had a great resonance, and I would like to work along the lines you suggest for two reasons. First, I would like to make the play as immediate and intriguing as the scenes you liked so well. But above all, I am a bugger for exposition – and as you no doubt know, exposition is the besetting sin of novelists, and much easier to scrape by on in the novel than on stage. Secondly, I too was a little uneasy about the chronological story telling, and am happy to explore devices which will deliver the play from time tyranny."
And so we were off to the races on rewrites, having established a warm and connected relationship. And so, too, the irony, of experiencing warmth and camaraderie in the process of making an art which presents portraits both harrowing and horrible about a time when men were forced to make impossible choices, caught between their church and their conscience; between their government and their Maker. Thomas Keneally has created a major new work about an aspect of Holocaust history at which most Jews have not frequently looked. We thank him for giving us the privilege of staging it first right here. And moreover, we thank him for writing this alarming and morally stirring new work.
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