Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine came to DC for a command performance on January 25, 1942. The occasion: Franklin Roosevelt’s 60th birthday. America had just entered World War II and the fight against fascism.
Hellman’s 1941 masterpiece came to DC again last night, opening at the Mead Center’s Fichandler Stage. The occasion: a heightened debate over America’s banning of refugees, about its relationship to totalitarian regimes, and her place in a world increasingly on fire.
And, of course, by happenstance, the Republican takeover of all the levers of government.
This combination of superlative writing, a fabulous cast and direction, and themes of pressing import makes for a powerhouse performance that’s sure to leave its mark on audience members for years to come.
The theatre doesn’t get any better than this.
Golden Globe winning actress Marsha Mason plays the wealthy DC socialite Fanny Farrelly, whose concerns seem as facile as is her understanding of the world. But, of course, in the hands of Mason and Hellman, master actress and playwright, what someone seems is not necessarily what someone is.
Set in the Farrelly’s family home, the gazebo-like living room designed by Todd Rosenthal, which one could easily imagine as a turret overlooking the Potomac, could just as easily be imagined overlooking the Rhine.
Fanny’s daughter, Sara (played with fierce resolve by Lise Bruneau), has returned home from Europe with her family and husband after a 20-year absence.
The occasion: Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and his increasingly aggressive actions: first in Spain, then in Austria and sections of Czechoslovakia, and finally in Poland where 2000 panzers steamrolled the countryside.
Sara’s husband, the anti-fascist Kurt (brought to brilliant life by Andrew Long), has a briefcase full of money to help fund the resistance to Hitler.
Fanny and her son David (played with lawyerly suave by Thomas Keegan) know nothing of the world outside Washington. Much like today, they think America welcomes all refugees. They know nothing of the restrictions placed by Roosevelt on Jewish refuges or of the longstanding ban on the Chinese.
Both live in the Washington bubble, if you will. As written by Hellman, that bubble is about to be torn asunder by Sara and Kurt. For Kurt soon discovers that the Farrellys have another house guest, the Romanian Count Teck De Brancovis (given slimy sophistication by J. Anthony Crane). The count, it seems, has deep and abiding respect for Germany’s Washington-based Nazi diplomatic corps.
Europe’s pre-World War II clashes are about to become all too real for the Farrellys.
Hellman doesn’t stop there, however; the Count’s wife, Marthe (played with a dynamic combination of passivity and resolve by Natalie Payne), adds fuel to the fire when a romance begins to flicker between Marthe and David.
From the very beginning of the play, when the family servants Anise and Joseph (played with great dignity by Helen Hedman and Addison Switzer) enter to prepare the room for guests, the dramaturgical tension between the play’s drawing room comedy façade and its dramatic content flourishes.
We laugh at Fanny’s relationships with her servants and children alike. She is the matriarch-in-charge even as she tries her “darndest” to respect everyone no matter their class or race.
Director Jackie Maxwell has navigated that dramatic tension with both nuance and clarity, working wonderfully with her 12-person cast.
Of particular note is the acting of Sara and Kurt’s three children: the eldest Joshua (given a quiet strength by Ethan Miller), the daughter Babette (given self-assurance by Lucy Breedlove), and the youngest Bodo (given an endearing preciousness by Tyler Bowman). Particularly memorable is the feisty and oddly balanced relationship between Bodo and Fanny.
In addition to Set Designer Todd Rosenthal, Arena has assembled an excellent production team, spearheaded by Costume Designer Judith Bowden and longtime Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler. The original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem complimented beautifully the dramatic through line.
To be sure, the clarity with which most Americans now view the competing forces in World War II makes the choosing of sides much easier to follow.
At the time, however, with anti-communist propaganda in full swing and the press at best ambivalent about fascism, Hitler gained acceptance in American political circles.
The German American Bund (Alliance) held rallies in support of Hitler and his ideology across the country and even at Madison Square Garden; they offered Nazi summer camps for kids, most prominently in upstate New York at Camp Siegfried.
The Catholic Priest, Father Charles Coughlin, took to the radio to stir up American anti-Semitism.
And celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and auto manufacturer Henry Ford promoted eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the danger of unions and communism.
Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine and its humanization and honest portrayal of the conflict between human dignity and the forces of greed sounded like a wakeup call to the nation.
The fact that Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee would blacklist and smear Hellman and thousands of other decent people all across America during the 1950s is nothing if not ironic.
We can only hope that in 2017 her Watch on the Rhine continues to wake us up to the threat of silence.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.
Watch on the Rhine plays February 3 to March 5, 2017, at the Mead Center for the American Theater’s Fichandler Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.
Review: ‘Watch on the Rhine’ at Arena Stage by Robert Michael Oliver.
Magic Time! ‘Watch on the Rhine’ at Arena Stage by John Stoltenberg.
In the Moment: A Chat With Ethan Van Slyke on His Career and Understudying For ‘Watch On the Rhine’ at Arena Stage by David Siegel.
Interviews by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts:
Meet the Three Young Actors in ‘Watch on the Rhine’ at Arena Stage: #1 Ethan Miller.
Meet the Three Young Actors in ‘Watch on the Rhine’ at Arena Stage: #2 Tyler Bowman.
Meet the Three Young Actors in ‘Watch on the Rhine’ at Arena Stage: #3 Lucy Breedlove.