Steamship Quanza | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Building Company

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

There's no shortage of examples of how not to write a play based on actual events. Some authors do virtually no research, while others can't bring themselves to leave anything out. Some are so overcome with zeal that they assume they don't need to argue their case, and some are so unsure of their ability to sway the audience that they slather their scripts with melodrama. Some with personal axes to grind blithely distort history, and others lose sight of what made them want to write their plays. Even if the playwright manages to avoid these pitfalls, the director or the actors may not.

Building Company's Steamship Quanza is therefore a rarity--everybody does everything right, from the writers who came up with the idea to whoever chose the shoes worn by Eleanor Roosevelt in act two. The playwrights, Stephen Morewitz and Susan Lieberman, keep their objective in focus, while giving their characters sufficient humanity to prevent the script from resembling a history lesson. The spare action is stripped bare of histrionics, and the actors are not afraid to display emotion but know how to play subtleties. The technical staff have also done their homework, weeding out any inaccuracy that would derail our perception of the period.

The incident that inspired this play is the voyage of the SS Quanza from Lisbon to New York City in 1940. Among the passengers are refugees fleeing the Nazis, some of whom are wealthy citizens, like Gerhardt Wolff and his daughter Anna, who have friends and relatives waiting at the dock to welcome them. Others are lone men like Helman Levy, a Hungarian violinist, or women like Ida Lipschultz, a Polish-born mother with a small baby--the last survivors of their families. America has not yet entered the war, however, and fear of communist spies is rampant--all foreigners are suspect. So the Quanza is doomed to travel from harbor to harbor in search of a government willing to accept the refugees, who purchase one visa after another, their money dwindling rapidly and with it their hopes of finding sanctuary.

Their only allies are a team of maritime attorneys in the port city of Hampton Roads, Virginia--Ben and Darcy Abrams. Having made a reputation for themselves some years earlier with a ground-breaking immigration case involving the quarantine of foreign sailors, they take up the cause of saving the Quanza's passengers from certain death at the hands of the German government. The bureaucrats in Washington dither ("Why does Mr. Roosevelt have a political-refugee committee if you think nobody is in political danger?" a member of the committee snaps in exasperation at the stubbornly conservative assistant secretary of state), and the First Lady herself finally intervenes. The Abramses become more and more deeply involved in their battle for the refugees, to the point that their own family threatens to disintegrate. Not all the respectable citizens of Hampton Roads, who include relatives of Ben and Darcy, approve of the Abramses' views and life-style--and that disturbs their adolescent son David.

Stephen Morewitz would know about the domestic trials of the Abrams family--the characters are based on his grandparents, who did indeed defend the right of the Quanza immigrants to disembark on American soil. The historical data from which the play is fashioned is largely taken from their file records; David Abrams, who pushes a lifeboat overboard to distract the dockyard guard so Ben Abrams can board the ship, must be Morewitz's father. This incident--dramatically significant in that it represents the confirmation of the son's allegiance to his father and the boy's rite of passage from selfish interests to an awareness of greater responsibilities, not to mention being the first step toward the liberation of the refugees--is not presented in a laudatory manner. And when Anna expresses horror at the brutal way the guard ejects Abrams from the ship, young David assures her, "Don't worry--this happens all the time." The likewise heroic attempt of Helman Levy to swim ashore in search of a doctor for a sick baby is also depicted with no chest beating. If we in the audience feel like standing up and cheering when the wheels of freedom finally start to turn, it is not merely because we have had all the right emotional buttons pushed, but also because we have gradually come to care about these people who hide their fear and sorrow so bravely.

Robert Teverbaugh--whose direction of Rick Clute's Throwaways at Chicago Dramatists Workshop's showcase of short plays last year demonstrated that he has an eye for the revealing detail--keeps the action crisp and evenly paced. (The Building Company also called in legal consultants to ensure that the actors fully comprehended their speeches.) The entire cast delivers nice, underplayed performances, in particular veteran character actors Don Blair as the reactionary assistant secretary of state and Daryl Schultz as the equally reactionary Gerhardt Wolff, a businessman who values his social status above his own survival. Both of these characters could easily have slipped over into caricature, as could Ron Wells's oh-so-earnest committeeman, but the actors refused to indulge in that kind of posturing. Intelligent and sensitive performances are also given by Patrick Thomas Murphy as the shyly humorous Levy and Tucker Brown as the stalwart and savvy Darcy Abrams (the two actresses are usually cast as fuzzy-headed ingenues). Costume designer Dawn DeWitt, set designer Tim Oien, and properties designer Teverbaugh whisk us from the Abramses' family kitchen to the dining room of the Quanza to the White House without a single anachronism.

"We are all patriots, and we're all refugees," says Eleanor Roosevelt in the play. "My family came here a very long time ago, but they were refugees too. It's only a difference of time between me and the people on that ship. Eventually they too will be 'patriots'--terrified that a stranger will slip in through the door and take their country away from them." It is easy for Americans to become insular and self-protective. On this 50th anniversary of the Quanza incident, Lieberman and Morewitz's play serves to remind us of other refugees looking to the United States for safety and freedom, while Building Company's production shows us how their story should be told.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Konczal.

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