LAST LETTERS FROM STALINGRAD
Real Theatre Company
at the Broadway Arts Center
If you were given the knowledge that you probably didn't have long to live, but you did have the chance to write one final letter to anyone you wished, who would you write? What could you say in only a few hours that would sum up your life, your relationships, your ideals? A line in the Real Theatre Company's production of Last Letters From Stalingrad declares that "in one's last letters, one says only what is true, or what one thinks is true." If it were 1943 and you were a German soldier fighting in Stalingrad, the truth might seem elusive, or even sadly unbelievable. Yet how could you not take that last chance to try and describe it as you saw it?
Last Letters From Stalingrad is a play created by director James Pelton from the letters written by such soldiers. Hitler's plan to invade the Soviet Union went awry when Moscow and Leningrad would not fall. Trying another tactic, he ordered an attack on Stalingrad. When this city too would not surrender, the 250,000 German soldiers who had been rerouted there found themselves trapped. Starving and desperate, their ranks were dwindling; finally, word was released that only one last German plane would make it out of the area. The soldiers were notified that they had only a few hours in which to write a last letter home before the plane left. The plane made it out of Stalingrad but the letters didn't get past the German high command. Seven bags of mail were confiscated when the plane reached Berlin. The letters were opened and sent to Goebbels, who found the soldiers' morale so low he refused to allow the letters to be delivered to the unsuspecting public.
The concept of building a show around these last and often confessional letters is a strong one. The letters are predictably poignant and touching and evoke not only sympathy but the realization that the German soldiers of the field were not necessarily the Nazis of the gas chambers. They are depicted merely as men, lovers separated from those they loved, artists whose injuries would prohibit them from creating even if they should survive, and idealists who believed in their country until it turned against them and it was too late to pull out. In one of the most gripping letters, a man writes his wife and explains why he chose to write to her instead of the mistress he had loved more; in another, a pianist explains that his hands have been mangled, barely allowing him to hold a cup, much less play a piano (but curiously he can still shoot a rifle); and a son writes condemning his father, a general who would not pull the necessary strings to bring his son home--in essence for being more in love with his country than with his family.
The letters are presented by a chorus of four (Peter Leondis, Phil Gibbs, Tish Hicks, and Ted Meissner), one following another and often overlapping, as if to say that this suffering is universal and continuous--favoring no single political position. They read often from behind a fence, locked into their situations and their lives as their letters are soon to be locked within German vaults. Occasionally they come out from behind the fence, and even interact. Tish Hicks movingly represents the wives who waited for the men whose return never came. Yet as the wives were not, she is able to briefly respond to the letters and even reach out to touch their authors. It is the survivors, those left behind who never received the last epistles, who are the real victims of the story. How many lives could have been made easier to bear by these last-minute writings.
Many of the devices that director Pelton uses, the fences, a heavy locked door from behind which the letters are brought at the beginning of the show and ominously locked behind at the conclusion, work well to carry out the themes of persecution and suffering. Had the production stopped there, with a strong concept, a fine cast, and some powerful devices, it would have been more cohesive than it turned out to be. Not only was this production marred by technical problems such as some incredibly slow light cues (long blackouts during the evening left the audience unsure even of when the play had ended), but also by unwise directorial choices. While music could have been used successfully in the show, the night I saw the show, the music from a dance performance upstairs overpowered anything that Pelton chose to emphasize his piece. It was not only difficult to discern which music was coming from which studio, but it was distracting to have to try.
The crimes this production commits all seem to be in favor of excess. Had the chorus been left to their own devices, the show might have been more believable, more touching. They were, however, encased in a slow-moving narrative of historical information. Unfortunately, Ric Roe was not only engaging as the person who presents this background information (to both the audience and the commandant whose job it was to rule on the fate of the letters), but he was also sympathetic. It's hard to believe that any high-ranking officer of the German army who spends as much time condemning the high command under his breath as Roe's Erzaehler does could escape a quick court-martial. The letters themselves wield enough anti-Nazi material without this long and often dull diatribe.
Another addition that seemed unnecessary was the projection of several unfathomable woodcutlike prints. Like the music, they served more as a distraction than as a complement to the already powerful collection of texts. This talented chorus certainly didn't need the embellishment anyhow. Peter Leondis, in dual roles as a chorus member and as the leader of the Stalingrad division who makes the unenviable decision to surrender, and Tish Hicks, as the universal wife, certainly offered the audience enough, with the help of the rest of the cast, in way of explanation and experience. Why Pelton thought any ornamentation was necessary is beyond me, but it is worth seeing this production for the show that lies underneath it all, the one that illustrates the human element that continues to reach out even when no hope is left. Unfortunately, "they all called the name of someone who could not help them" and, thanks to the German command, someone who would never hear them.