Alix Sobler’s play Sheltered, based on real-life characters, is a rarity. It is a history play that doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying a period in history in such detail that it forgets to create a substantive plot or intriguing characters. Currently playing at Theater J, Sheltered is about relatively recent history. Act One takes place in April 1939 in the well-appointed Providence, Rhode Island home of Evelyn (Erin Weaver) and Leonard Kirsch (David Schlumpf).
The Kirsches have invited another couple – Roberta and Martin Bloom – to their home for cocktails and to discuss an issue that is of paramount importance to them: the rise of Hitler’s influence in Europe and the endangerment of many Jewish people.
Evelyn and Leonard believe that the future will only bring worse conditions to Jewish people living under Nazi control. They believe that every life that can be saved now, must be saved now.
That is why Evelyn and Leonard are traveling to Vienna the following week, to meet forty Jewish children and take them back to America. Leonard has been continually in Washington, DC and has succeeded in getting visas for forty lucky children to leave Austria. There is just one condition: the Kirsches must find appropriate families willing to house the children. Evelyn and Leonard need one more willing couple and hope that Roberta and Martin will agree to join in their cause.
But Roberta (Kimberly Gilbert) and Martin (Alexander Strain) are mired in their own problems. Martin thinks Hitler is a temporary problem that will disappear soon.
Roberta is personally overwhelmed by an uppity fifteen-year-old daughter who is rebelling against her parents; her conviction that Evelyn abandoned her socially years ago; and her husband’s outrageous – and open – emotional abuse. Clearly the Blooms are not good bets for helping Evelyn and Leonard.
By Act Two, it is May 1939. Evelyn and Leonard are in a hotel suite in Vienna. It is the night before they are scheduled to depart from Vienna with the children. But all is not well.
Evelyn is on edge, what with all the Nazi banners hanging from street lamps and pictures of Hitler on every shop window. She hasn’t been outside for days, choosing instead to stay inside and finish all the paperwork for the project. Leonard goes to the American Consulate and comes back to the hotel nervously looking out the window, sure that he has been followed.
Suddenly, the couple is visited by the mother, Frau Mueller (McLean Fletcher), of one of the children. She has decided that her son cannot go with the others. Evelyn’s and Leonard’s hopes are dashed.
Sobler’s gifts as a playwright allow her to suggest a very accurate portrait of Vienna in 1939, where the city had been under Hitler’s rule for twelve months and had been transformed from a world-famous, sophisticated city into a garish public relations center for Nazi rule.
But Sobler’s greatest gift is for making her five characters credible in that setting. Erin Weaver is a perfect choice for the role of Evelyn. She exhibits all the energy, optimism, and passion that Evelyn must have as she helps in the improbable task of bringing forty children from Austria to America at such a dangerous time.
David Schlumpf shows two sides of Leonard’s character. In Act One, he is the genial host of a dinner party, a man who likes to drink, to cook, and to show off his new Cadillac. In Act Two, he switches gears and reveals his dedication to the project to save the children. He also reveals his deep and abiding love for Evelyn.
Kimberly Gilbert is a delight as Roberta, always ready to complain about something – from the real fact that her husband is a bully to the fact that she believes Evelyn rejected her. There is a tremendous amount of humor in Sheltered, and much of it is delivered by Gilbert.
Alexander Strain is brilliant in the role of Martin Bloom. He refuses to believe what he hears on the radio about Hitler’s rise. Martin’s refusal to listen to the facts about what is happening in Europe is breathtaking and Strain makes Martin’s ignorance utterly believable. McLean Fletcher is a very cool and devoted mother of a young boy scheduled to be among the forty.
Director Adam Immerwahr keeps most of the play moving at a very fast clip, with occasional slower moments between Evelyn and Roberta or Evelyn and Frau Mueller. The pacing is exact and appropriate.
Scenic designer Paige Hathaway creates two sets. The first is the comfortable living room of a prosperous doctor and his wife in America, circa 1939. The walls are painted light blue, a color that is continued in the wainscoting. A huge window stage right is hung with matching blue drapes and valance. In Act Two, that same room is converted to the Vienna hotel, with more modest drapes, chairs, tables, and a chaise lounge.
Costume designer Kelsey Hunt dresses Weaver in a gorgeous emerald evening gown in Act I and a dressing gown, then a tailored suit in Act II. Gilbert’s gown is also floor-length, as was the fashion of the day for the cocktail hour.
Sheltered is a marvelous story of hope and the importance of taking a moral stance in life. In the suspense that runs through the play, but particularly in Act Two, Sobler demonstrates her ability to use language as an instrument of friendship, negotiation, and resistance.
The fact that Sheltered is based on a true story only enhances its impact. In 1939, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus went to Germany and brought back home to Philadelphia fifty children, most likely saving them from death. You don’t need to know that, but it’s comforting to realize that Sheltered is not just well-meaning fiction, or a well-made play. Something like it was also fact in 1939.
Running Time: Two hours including one intermission.
Sheltered plays through February 2, 2020, at Theater J in the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.
Lighting designer, Colin K. Bills; Props design, Timothy Jones; Wig design, Greg Bazemore; Dialect coach, Leigh Wilson Smiley