Reviewed by Brad Hathaway
A powerful holocaust play impeccably performed
The history of the human race is so complex and so multifaceted that the highest of virtues and the lowest of atrocities co-exist. Fiction can often zoom in on one tiny element of a gigantic story and either bring it into comprehensible focus or shed some light on the how or why or even who that history in its broad sweep leaves unexplored. Thomas Keneally has made a career out of using fiction to get up close enough to big issues to see real people where others see symbols or icons or stereotypes. He's most famous, of course, for using the form of the novel to tell the story of Oskar Schindler who saved over a thousand Jews from the hands of Hitler. His Schindler's Ark became Steven Speilberg's Schindler's List. Here he zooms in on a German caught up in the execution of the extermination policy due to his expertise in the chemicals used to kill. Theater J presents the world premiere of the play with performances that put human faces on the forces of history.
Storyline: A German evangelical Christian with an expertise in chemistry is caught up in the Nazi movement and his knowledge of extermination chemicals is found to be of importance to those in the party and the government who administer the mass murder programs of the Reich. He's appalled when his mentally disturbed sister is a victim of the systematic killing of the "mentally deficient," but gets caught up himself in the program when his knowledge of Zyklon B which promises to be a more efficient chemical for the gas chambers in the concentration camps.
Keneally gives us a look into the quandary facing one tiny cog on the gigantic gear that powered one element of a horrific aspect of human history. This is the role of a holocaust play (or book or movie) - to let us, or force us, to think in terms of individual actions rather than sit back and comfortably condemn broad sweeps of history. The result isn't a particularly pleasant evening in the theater, but, then, it shouldn't be. It should be difficult to look this moment in history in the face without blinking, and Keneally gives us the opportunity to do that by focusing in so closely on real people that make real choices rather than specks blown by the irresistible winds of history.
Paul Morella leads a cast of well known faces. His ramrod stiff posture reveals the pressure inside as he grapples with the series of blows history has for him. He's particularly good at revealing the reluctance to believe the nearly-unbelievable, and the power of the blow when he realizes the consequences of what is expected of him. Ralph Cosham is solid as his even stiffer father who is assailed by no doubts at all, who can actually say with a straight face "to tell a government what it wants to hear is not a lie, it is a civic courtesy." Two women put a human face on the dilemma and they are nicely played by Elizabeth H. Richards and Meghan Grady. The rest of the cast are called upon to play multiple roles given that Keneally has written a play with more parts than most theaters can afford to fill. John Lescault has four roles ranging from a pastor to the Papal Nuncio and Conrad Feininger is both a civilian investigator and an SS police chief. All do creditable jobs in each of their roles.
James Kronzer's set reflects what has become known as "Nazi Architecture," that strange amalgamation of Imperial Roman grandeur and Art Deco fluidity. He carries set pieces beyond the proscenium to draw the audience into the strange world of the Third Reich. The most dramatic image of the evening is saved for the very last. Morella's character has meticulously saved the paperwork which, in true Teutonic spirit, he believes will prove his version of events to be the truth. As he is taken away after the fall of the Reich, all that remains on stage is his stack of papers - highlighted by a spotlight. It is a call to study the record, find the truth and remember.
Written by Thomas Keneally. Directed by Daniel De Raey. Design: James Kronzer (set) Misha Kachman (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Martha Mountain (lights) Ryan Rumery (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Kate Kilbane (stage manager). Cast: Ralph Cosham, Parker Dixon, John Dow, Conrad Feininger, Meghan Grady, John Lescault, John-Michael MacDonald, Paul Morella, Elizabeth Richards, Clay Steakley.
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