Watch on the Rhine takes place during a seldom explored or even talked about era in American history. After the Great Depression and The New Deal, but before the bombing of Pearl Harbor there existed a dark period of uncertainty. In Europe, countries and territories fell to the Axis powers. One by one, rights were stripped from Jews and other “undesirables.” In America, there was much hand-wringing, but little action.
When Lillian Hellman wrote Watch on the Rhine, the future was anything but certain. Even viewing the play with the comfortable distance of nearly 70 years since VE Day (or Victory over Europe), one is discomfitted. The victory of the United States and the Allied powers in World War II is something every school child knows. By the end of Watch on the Rhine, one will be aware of just how dearly bought that victory was and how once it was anything but certain.
The action opens with the Farrelly home in a state of uproar. Today is the day that the prodigal daughter, Sara (Theresa Riffle) and her husband, Kurt Muller (John Coe), along with their gaggle of children, will be coming home for a visit. Fanny Farrelly (Cece McGee-Newbrough), the family’s somewhat neurotic, former Southern Belle, matriarch has planned for their arrival down to the last detail. In the process, she has driven her household staff, her son and her houseguests to distraction. All of Fanny’s careful planning is for naught, when Sara and family turn up early and unannounced.
The family reunion is joyful. Sara and her brother, David (Benjamin Wolfe), are tearfully reunited. Fanny is ecstatic to meet her grandchildren and wonders why David has failed to marry and produce some more. However, the introductions sour when Kurt Muller is introduced to one of Fanny’s house guests, the Romanian Count, Teck de Brancovis (Timothy Sayles). Count de Brancovis is suspicious of Kurt, going so far as to search through the families luggage.
Count de Brancovis discovers that Kurt is a member of the Resistance. This leads to a second act full of intrigue, blackmail, and betrayal. You’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat all the way to the last scene.
Watch on the Rhine is set in a luxurious home somewhere near Washington, D.C.. It could even have been set in Annapolis where Colonial Players is based, but it is more likely that it takes place in Northern Virginia, based on Fanny’s mannerism and the grand, plantation-style house. However, audiences will be charmed by a play that is set close to home and strikes near to the heart.
Walking into the theater for Colonial Players new production of Watch on the Rhine. Is like accidentally stumbling into your grandmother’s sitting room. After you get over the shock of accidentally wandering into an elderly person’s house, one really begins to enjoy the set. David Pindell’s set design is a delight. Carpets, sofas, end tables and even a piano comprise the set, but it nevers looks overdone or overstuffed. It feels as though the audience has gone to watch a drawing room play in someone’s drawing room.
Part of what made Watch on the Rhine such a wonderful production, was the attention to detail. Sound Designer Sarah Wade captures perfectly the natural noises of life, everything from the strains of a piano to the putter of a departing car. The sounds are pleasing and organic. Matthew Shogren, lighting Design, adeptly manages Colonial Player’s new and improved lighting rig.
Late in Act II, there is a magnificently choreographed fight scene. Due to Mark Allen’s excellent fight choreography, one is genuinely concerned for the health and well-being of the fighters. As well, one is concerned for any damaged done to the furniture.
Costumes by Bonnie Persinger are pleasing and evoke a certain vintage flair. Properties Designer, Constance Robinson has done an amazing job collect the bric-a-brac that collects in living rooms. The best pieces are the antique lighters that the cast members are constantly lighting up their “ tobacco-free, nicotine-free, herbal mixtures for cigarettes and pipes.”
Cece McGee-Newbrough’s Fanny Farrelly is one of the best parts of Watch on the Rhine. Whether she is tossing out one of many, many outrageous one-liners or embarrassing her children and grandchildren with stories of the old days, Cece McGee-Newbrough’s Fanny is fantastic. Fanny is the bright thread woven through the story that keeps it from being too grim.
John Coe’s performance is also notable. He plays the stoic and duty-driven Kurt Muller to a fault. It is particularly impressive considering it is his first time on stage since high school.
Honorable mentions go to the Muller children, Joshua (Eli Pendry), Babette (Katie McMorrow), and Bodo (Drew Sharpe). With the exception of Bodo, they are not given many lines. Their German accents though were quite gut.
Director Terry Averill has marvelously brought Lillian Hellman’s vision to the stage for a new generation. If you have seen Casablanca and sympathised with Rick’s plight, you must see The Colonial Players’ excellent production of Watch on the Rhine.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission.