SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA., July 14, 2017 – Given that the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) highlights new or almost-new American plays, most dramas presented each year are understandably set in the present or recent past. But David Meyers’ world premiere drama “We Will Not Be Silent” differs in that it’s set in World War II Germany nearly 75 years ago.
While a historical drama can explore the past in a detailed and authentic way, however, it can also serve as a metaphor for the vital concerns of the present. It’s no surprise, then, that “Silent” recalls a horrific and tragic event from the increasingly distant past to serve as a cautionary tale for our own times. But while Adolf Hitler and his Nazi friends were the villains in 1943, who are the villains today?
“We Will Not Be Silent” is set in a gloomy interrogation room somewhere in Nazi-controlled Munich, Germany. It is furnished only with an institutional table and chairs and illuminated by a single, relentless industrial lamp shining harshly from above.
Meyers’ chilling one-act play focuses primarily on the cat-and-mouse game being played between Nazi interrogator Kurt Grunwald (Paul DeBoy) and his designated victim, young, 21-year old German university student Sophie Scholl (Lexi Lapp).
Sophie, her brother Hans (Lucky Gretzinger) and a small cadre of friends and family were real-life historical figures who together formed an anti-Nazi underground group known as “The White Rose.” Conducting such activities in that era was a virtual death guarantee, as the Nazi regime’s highly efficient spies and secret police apparatus would inevitably infiltrate such groups with the object of terminating them. Permanently.
Based on historical fact, “Silent” chronicles Sophie’s brutal interrogation, which, as the audience can guess in advance, will inevitably end in a death sentence. In this fictionalized but realistic account, an understandably fearful but resolute Sophie has her confidence and even her belief system systematically broken down by her interrogator, though she ultimately remains true in the end.
In many respects, her interrogator, Kurt Grunwald, is a more interesting character. As one might expect, Grunwald varies his questioning techniques, forcing Sophie into a mental and emotional roller-coaster ride as his character morphs from intellectual, to reasonable, to violent, to sympathetic.
Grunwald is a cipher. Within the context of the play, he is not so much a card-carrying Nazi as he is an average citizen who must execute his duties on behalf of the party lest he expose his own family to torture and death.
While the Germany of the 1930s and early-1940s seemed to support the Nazi government as one, it is clear that many good Germans nominally supported the party to spare their own families while loathing themselves on the inside.
When he’s in “good cop” mode, Grunwald emphasizes his dilemma to Sophie, perhaps with genuine empathy. Yet it’s equally likely that his apparent reluctance to do her harm may simply be another act, the better to extract more information from his highly reluctant witness. At the close of the play, the audience is left wondering if Grunwald’s apparent reluctance was genuine or artfully feigned. Indeed, it’s entirely possible it was both.
Meyers’ highly intellectual play is loaded with literary and philosophical references and allusions. Both central characters seem well-versed in both disciplines, which actually allows them to develop a certain level of rapport. Yet even here, a working knowledge of art, literature and theory can be a false front.
With university student Sophie, the possession of such knowledge seems vivid and real, as she is still on a college student’s traditional journey of intellectual discovery. On the other hand, the equally quick-witted Grunwald is likely deploying his own mastery of these subjects as bait.
Meyers’ play is loaded with dramatic and highly emotional moments as it vividly takes the audience along to accompany Sophie on her final tragic pilgrimage toward truth. And death.
The small cast – particularly this play’s two principals – brilliantly articulates diametrically opposed yet passionate individuals and and their passionate beliefs in a way that draws the audience more deeply into this fast-paced but highly disturbing drama. Director Ed Herendeen’s laser-like focus on the characters and their intense interactions throughout helps keep the audience riveted on Grunwald and Sophie throughout each rough-and-tumble encounter.
Unfortunately, playwright David Meyers undercuts the force of his powerful, pro-democracy play by linking his realistic, true-life narrative to the current Trump-as-Nazi meme favored by the major media and the losing party in last fall’s presidential contest (when they’re not hung up on Russia).
What’s interesting and rather sad is that this same Hitler analogy, in various forms, has been pinned on every Republican president since at least the first term of Ronald Reagan. Why revive it here, save to curry favor with the theater community in New York?
The playwright’s endorsement of this well-worn bit of fake news does not spring from this reviewer’s imagination. It surfaces quite clearly in an interview appearing in this year’s CATF program.
While Meyers’ Trump-Hitler linkage is more artful than most, his arguments paint another false picture of current reality. This is particularly true in the apparent assumption that mindlessness and a lack of sophistication are the key drivers of Trump’s working-class voters, magically transforming them into the moral equivalent of Hitler’s most fanatical supporters. Sad.
“We Will Not Be Silent” is a riveting, heart-pounding play whose moral lesson is, unfortunately, aimed at precisely the wrong contemporary target. While the acting and directing in this production are superb, the playwright’s historical analogy is 180 degrees off course from current reality.
Our best advice: Just watch this gripping play, ignore the interview and program notes, and render your own informed judgment on the lessons of history.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
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Festival continues through July 30, 2017.