A gathering stormcloud looms over this exquisitely wrought play by Alix Sobler. “How bad is it going to get?” a character wonders aloud. No one can answer. “It can’t go on like this much longer, can it?” she asks. No one can say. The time is spring 1939. It and this mean Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Europe. All five characters are aware of it but none knows what’s to come. None has any conception of the “final solution” now called the Holocaust. And in the fraught space between our knowing and the characters’ not knowing, Sheltered at Theater J engages the very moral fiber of our being.
Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr, who directs Sheltered with transfixing emotional precision, has called Sobler “a rising star of the Jewish theater.” Indeed Sheltered is to all appearances a very Jewish play. It tells of a married Jewish couple in Providence, Rhode Island—Evelyn and Leonard Kirsch—who embark on a mission of conscience to rescue 40 Jewish children in Vienna (which has been occupied by Nazis for a year) and resettle them with Jewish families in America. Though this story arc is based on an actual American Jewish couple who in 1939 rescued 50 Jewish children, Sheltered plays less like a history recap and more like a familiar contemporary domestic drama about marital and parental tensions. In form and style, it’s kind of conventional, really, a little like a television soap. Even the naturalistic upscale interior scenic design (by Paige Hathaway) and fashionable period costumes (by Kelsey Hunt) say elegance and equanimity. Except that the stakes—as we know with far more horror than the characters can imagine—are life and death.
The genius of Sheltered surfaces as we watch it simultaneously in the then and in the now. We listen to the characters deliberate and agonize about this drop-in-the-bucket rescue mission, knowing full well that millions will soon be murdered. And in the process of our engagement with the specificity of Sheltered as a Jewish story defined by its time, the play takes on an urgent universality, a nonsectarian cri de coeur, as if perhaps somewhere even now uncounted children might be being sent to concentration camps and as if perhaps we can choose not to think about it because it’s not close to home and as if perhaps we can look the other way and do nothing and as if hopefully the next election will solve everything.
In Act One, Evelyn (Erin Weaver) and Leonard (David Schlumpf) have invited another couple, Roberta (Kimberly Gilbert) and Martin Bloom (Alexander Strain), to a dinner party in their home in hopes that the Blooms will agree to take in a rescued child. Sobler’s script, though mostly very funny, is unsparing in its depiction of the Blooms’ and the U.S. government’s disinclination to get involved:
MARTIN: Of course it’s a shame, considering what’s going on with the Jews in Europe. But. Well. A line has to be drawn. America has to put herself first. It’s only fair.
We live in a democracy and we must have faith that our leaders know what they are doing. Let the Europeans handle it.
The script expands on that theme in Act Two, which takes place in a hotel room in Vienna, where Evelyn and Leonard have come to select the children they will bring back with them to America. Unexpectedly they are visited by Hani Mueller (McLean Fletcher), the mother of a five-year-old Austrian boy who is on the Kirsches’ list. At one point, Hani excoriates America’s privileged inaction:
HANI: … The whole world knows. They sit and they watch. While these monsters ruin our livelihoods. Destroy our incomes and families and dignity. And what do the Americans do? Your hero Roosevelt? Nothing. Cowards, all of you.
Sobler has brilliantly structured the play around two climactic persuasion scenes. One of them anchors Act One and the other anchors Act Two. Significantly, both of those scenes happen between women, with the men out of the room.
Near the end of Act One, Martin and Leonard exit to admire Leonard’s new Cadillac, and Evelyn alone with Roberta persuades her—mother to mother—to take in a child. That scene is so rich with insight, including into Roberta’s abusive marriage, and Weaver and Gilbert perform it with such gutsy emotional authenticity, that the entire play plunges suddenly to that elusive depth where the moral power of theater dwells.
In Act Two, Evelyn sends Leonard off on an errand to buy some aspirin so that alone with Hani she can persuade another mother to give up her child. It will be best for the boy, Evelyn explains. But the choice for Hani is excruciating. And Sobler’s script and Weaver’s and Fletcher’s performances are breathtaking. Particularly heartbreaking is Hani’s hope:
HANI: We will be together through…whatever comes.
EVELYN: And you’ll all be reunited soon, of course. Once this all … passes.
What does getting involved mean in the scale of things, in the context of humanitarian catastrophes? What can an individual really do anyway? Wouldn’t it be nuts to even try? To this point earlier in Act One, Roberta challenges Evelyn and Evelyn answers:
ROBERTA: What kind of a person does something so crazy?
EVELYN: A person who can’t just sit by and watch.
This play hits so close to home this moment in America, it gives one chills. For we cannot know how darkling the sky could yet become.
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.