Thursday, December 7, 2017

"Watch on the Rhine"

Watch on the Rhine
Lillian Hellman

Sarah Agnew, Caitlin O'Connell & Elijah Alexander
In April 1941 – eight months before Pearl Harbor – history tells us that pockets of America were divided in their loyalties and biases concerning the events going on in Europe and that many in America wanted to put their heads in the sand and hope that the U.S. would not once again in the twentieth century be drawn into a European war.  On Broadway that month, Lillian Hellman’s latest play, Watch on the Rhine, opened – a play whose title and whose increasingly tense and disturbing unfolding of events become a warning to America to wake up and to ready itself for darker days ahead.  In a time when once again America is clearly divided regarding what some see as dark, threatening clouds and others see as long-awaited/needed shifts in government policies, Berkeley Repertory Theatre (in a co-production with the revered Guthrie Theatre of Chicago) stages a family drama that is seductive with its early humor; fast-moving with three acts that seem to fly by; and ever-more steeped in mystery, intrigue, and unease. 

Fanny Farrelly is the grande dame of her large estate home twenty miles from Washington, D.C., a woman who insists breakfast is “ at 9 a.m. in this house and will be until the day after I die” and one who also believes gossip is one of the great joys in life (“a snooper shows interest in life”).  On this particular morning, the household she shares with her bachelor son, David, and with the memory of his deceased father (whose picture and legacy still dominate the home) is all in nervous atwitter in anticipation of the prodigal return of Sara.  The daughter/sister who married outside the wishes of her mother has not been seen in twenty years and is arriving with her German husband and three, never-met grandchildren. 

James Detmar & Caitlin O'Connell
Caitlin O’Connell’s Fanny cannot sit still, can hardly stop talking, and barks nervous commands and comments to Joshua and her long-time servants (and clearly near-family members), Anise and Joseph.  Ms. O’Connell sets the tone and scene for what appears at first to be a family period comedy, with any drama to come being centered on things like Joshua’s apparent attraction with houseguest Marthe, whose Romanian husband Teck is clearly suspicious and not amused. 

Sarah Agnew, Silas Sellnow, Jonah Horowitz, Emma Curtin & Elijah Alexander
But once the Muller family arrives with the look in clothing, luggage, and countenances of refuges just escaped from somewhere terrible, the shift of Lillian Hellman’s play commences, so wonderfully directed by Lisa Peterson with the skins of the onion coming off layer by layer to reveal backgrounds and political leanings of Fanny’s guests – both those related and those not.  The global, dangerous, and ultimately deadly struggles of Fascism and anti-Fascism soon land right into Fanny’s sedate and beautiful living room – all the while continue a family reunion with grandkids immensely cute and astute, a background love triangle/battle, and an ongoing upstairs/downstairs war of wits between Fanny and her servant/friend, Anise.

The scenic design of Neil Patel establishes the perfect imagery for Hellman’s play.  The ornate, sophisticated, and massive living room is beautiful in every respect and speaks of a household established in its gentry and history.  Windows and a patio door open onto a setting of trees and a sky that drips in colors deep and rich, thanks to a stunning lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols.  But those sky colors also have shades of troubling purples, and the room has dark corners and recessed ceiling shadows that warn that all is not as idyllic as it may first seem.  The music composed by Paul James Prendergast along with his sound design also intones melodies that at first invite and then others that catch one unawares in their echoes and incomplete chords.  This is a world where life is attempting to be normal and upbeat with a bit of matronly quirkiness built in, but it is also a world where life is taking a turn due to outside forces that no longer can be held at bay.

Jonathan Walker & Kate Guentzel
Joining Ms. O’Connell in this well-cast, compelling ensemble is a mixture of accents and dialects that begin to illustrate the global nature of the conflicts coming.  Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is the very French in speech and manner life-long servant of Fanny, Anise, whose dress and demeanor provide no clue that she is anything but an equal (if not the superior) of Ms. Farrelly.  As played by Kate Guentzel, the houseguest Marthe is a woman of European heritage whose character increases in boldness and sureness of self as she begins to break away from the threatening hold of her husband, Teck De Brancovis, a Romanian whose dark and sinister nature is evident the first time Jonathan Walker appears on stage.  The distaste that somehow one gets long before his Fascist leanings become clear comes from the way Mr. Walker masterfully uses his posture, voice, and eyes to send chills down one’s neck even when he is making seemingly small talk.

Kate Guentzel & Hugh Kennedy
David Farrelly lives in the shadow of his father (“Mama only thinks of me as a monument to Papa”), but Hugh Kennedy transforms this forty-something man who seems to have little to do in life but flirt with the visiting Marthe into a much more interesting and noble character as the acts progress in Hellman’s play.  Sarah Agnew is bubbling with enthusiasm and optimism as she bursts into the household that her character -- David’s sister, Sara Muller -- long ago absented.  Like Hellman’s play, shifts in her own demeanor begin to occur as signs of a darker background of difficult life events for her and her family begin to reveal themselves and as a courageous, self-sacrificing side of her comes forward and into light. 

Sara’s husband, Kurt -- with hands that shake uncontrollably at times and a body large and strong yet apparently beaten and bruised deep within by events from his past fighting the forces of Fascism – is powerfully and movingly portrayed by Elijah Alexander.  Together, the couple is a history lesson of what thousands of families were going through at that time in European history, both in their attempt to escape horrors as well as in their resolve to resist and risk life and limb to save others resisting.

Emma Curtin, Silas Sellnow & Jonah Horowitz
Rounding out the cast is a trio of Muller children who provide many chances to smile, even as the play’s clouds darken, and whose own attempts in courage are heart-warming and heartbreaking.  Emma Curtin is the loving and lovable daughter just entering her teens, Babette, who has learned many skills in her short life of being on the run with her border-crossing, danger-dodging parents.  Joshua Muller is in his mid-teens; as played by Silas Sellnow, his quiet, reserved manner does not hide the astute observations he is evidently making of the unfolding situation around him; and his ability to be both boy and man is impressive to witness.  Winning everyone’s hearts and big smiles (even his grandmother’s after much mocked reluctance to like him) is Bodo (Jonah Horowitz), who may be only eight or so but whose exacting speech, many languages spoken (or at least attempted), and big words employed make him often more like an adult in a kid’s body – that is until events leave him the sad and scared little boy that he really is.  Kudos goes to each of these three, young actors for outstanding performances.

At one point, Kurt Muller voices Lillian Hellman’s summary of her worldview of 1941 and hope for the future.  His and her words speak to why Watch on the Rhine is still an important wake-up call for America and why its placement on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s current season is important and timely:

“Shame on us.  Thousands of years, and we cannot yet make a world ... I will keep a hope that we will make a world where all men can die in bed.”

Rating: 5 E

Watch on the Rhine continues through January 14, 2018 in the Roda Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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