In 1943 a student riot broke out at the University of Munich, ignited by anti-Nazi leaflets distributed by five students. Two were promptly arrested, and the rest turned themselves in soon after. The perpetrators turned out to be no disenfranchised band of scruffs, however, but the privileged offspring of wealthy Aryan families, former Hitler Youth leaders and veterans of the student medical corps--not exactly the type of traitors the Third Reich would want to hold up to international scrutiny. "The BBC is going to have a field day with this," groans the head of the Munich gestapo in The White Rose, Lillian Garrett-Groag's play based on these events.
On one level The White Rose works as an espionage thriller. We meet the students--Hans Scholl, a noncombatant army veteran; his sister, Sophie; Alexander Schmorell, in love with Sophie; Christophe Probst, only 25 years old and already married with children; and Wilhelm Graf, the quintessential runty sidekick--dancing to American big-band records and dissing the Nazi party with youthful iconoclasm. We see Alexander smuggle in a mimeograph machine, hear him and his friends discuss their intention to retaliate against the authorities who would oppress their beloved country, and follow along as they plan to disseminate their propaganda. After they are captured, we cheer them on as they impudently defy their exasperated interrogators. (When Alexander insists on calling his father's attorneys, Chief Investigator Mahler snaps, "Do you expect all that money to protect you from prosecution?" only to have his prisoner insolently reply, "Be careful, Herr Mahler. That remark reeks of bolshevism!") There is even a mysterious outsider who warns the conspirators when danger is near and whose identity is revealed only in the last minutes of the play.
But Garrett-Groag takes the story to another level as well. The five students are as proud and willing to die for their beliefs as Mahler is eager to execute them in defense of his, but Herr Mohr, the head of the gestapo, is a more tragic figure. A bureaucrat who is used to muddling through his job, he is shaken by the fierce conviction of the students and finds himself unwilling to order their deaths--particularly that of Sophie, who reminds him of his daughter. In a confrontation reminiscent of a scene in Sophocles' Antigone, he argues with the young woman, trying desperately to convince her that her death will accomplish nothing, that it is the fate of mere mortals to go on living, and that her insistence on heroism constitutes self-aggrandizement. "The most we can hope for is to get by," Mohr says. "Heroes and demagogues will always shake things up for a while, but . . . we'll still be here when they're gone." (His arguments, of course, prove useless.)
Daniel Mooney plays Mohr with subtlety and sensitivity, ably assisted by Si Osborne--one of the best pompous heavies in town--as the inflexible Mahler. Jenna Lyn Ward's Sophie is inspiring but not superhuman. Christopher Cartmill also gets in a slyly self-effacing portrayal of Bauer, Mohr's unctuous and ubiquitous aide. The technical work is all up to Northlight's usual high standards, but special mention is due David Zerlin, whose score of incidental music (excerpts from works by German and American composers) integrates the events onstage in the manner of a tragic chorus. To be most highly commended, however, is director Russell Vandenbroucke, who resists easy emotionalism and creates an intelligent and restrained production designed to send us from the theater thinking--about the nature of the compromises and personal sacrifices we make daily in order to exist in an imperfect world.
Right as Rain, an adaptation of the diary of Anne Frank by Peter Barrett and Derek Goldman, tells its tale in the manner of Paul Sills's story theater--a form usually used for comedy but equally serviceable for serious material. Barrett and Goldman use two framing devices--a courtroom in Nuremburg where a German army commander is answering for his actions during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and the presence of a modern young woman who acts as our guide, moving the individual episodes along with a clap of her hands and sometimes addressing the characters from her late-20th-century perspective. Nursery rhymes and children's games are incorporated into the action, and toys are used to represent the fugitives' possessions--Dussel the dentist, for example, arrives bearing a large plastic toothbrush and an oversize set of false teeth. That Barrett and Goldman intend their play for juvenile audiences is apparent by the script's emphasis on experiences common to adolescents everywhere: Anne's struggle to find privacy in a household of adults, her budding romance with the young Peter Van Daan, the shy exchange of their first kiss, and the distress that kiss creates in their parents.
Produced by the StreetSigns branch of Roadworks Productions in association with the Spertus Museum, Right as Rain boasts a cast of energetic, athletic, and uniformly young players (which sometimes makes for confusion regarding the ages of the characters), led by the mercurial Bridgett Ane Lawrence. Strong performances come from George Brant as Anne's wise, gentle father and Barrett as an oddly vulnerable Nazi officer. Abby Epstein as Mrs. Van Daan and Gabriel Coleman as the pompous Dr. Dussel provide comic relief. The story itself is sometimes obscured by the show's many visual, audio, and kinetic elements. But as an introduction to one of the most touching and universal tales of courage to come out of the Holocaust, this production serves its purpose with sincerity, enthusiasm, and skill.
THE WHITE ROSE Northlight Theatre RIGHT AS RAIN Roadworks Productions at the Synergy Theatre Center
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.