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Auschwitz from the Inside 

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The Grey Zone

A Red Orchid Theatre

Perhaps the reason so much has been written about the Nazi concentration camps is that it's hard to find the right words to describe their satanic brilliance. Even a writer as accomplished as Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, was reduced to despair by the task. Early in his fine book about the Holocaust, The Drowned and the Saved, he interrupts his narrative to ask with palpable anguish, "Have we--we who have returned--been able to understand and make others understand our experience?" He answers that such a task seems all but impossible, because "what we commonly mean by 'understand' coincides with 'simplify.'" There's no way to communicate the injustice of the camps without reducing the experience.

I kept thinking of Levi's words as I watched A Red Orchid Theatre's production of Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, a taut, well-directed, finely acted play based in part on Levi's writings and in part on the reminiscences of other camp survivors, including Filip Muller and Dr. Miklos Nyiszli. Fortunately a good piece of theater can communicate in ways words alone cannot. Nelson's work is packed with facts and observations about the way prisoners dressed, the way the camps were laid out, and the official and unofficial hierarchies. But the real brilliance of The Grey Zone is how well the playwright, director Dado, and her adept cast and crew re-create the look and feel of camp life, especially the unstated, pervasive existential dread that undergirded all activity.

Nelson focuses on a small facet of Auschwitz, the world of the Sonderkommando, or "special squads"--Jews who were recruited, often at gunpoint, to work in the crematoriums. They were responsible for tricking prisoners into undressing and entering the "showers," for hauling the bodies from the gas chamber, for loading them into the ovens, then shoveling out the ashes and bits of bone. They had to pick through the victims' belongings, dividing clothes into piles, extracting valuables sewn into clothing, even pulling gold fillings from the mouths of corpses.

Muller--former member of a Sonderkommando--noted that workers either went crazy the first day or got used to it. But even those who survived were marked men: they knew too much about the Nazis' final solution. In Levi's words, "The SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of [the special squads] from surviving and telling." The SS went through 12 squads of 800 to 1,000 men between 1941 and 1944, rotating in a new one every few months. The first job of a new squad, Levi notes, was to burn the corpses of their predecessors.

These are the primary characters in Nelson's play: a handful of lonely, exhausted, underfed men covered in soot--also called the "crematorium ravens"--who all know, from their first day, that their job is a death sentence. They live in a gray zone between the prisoners and the SS: they are Jews but complicit in the Nazis' crimes. (The SS was brilliant at spreading the guilt around.)

Usually when a writer describes such a hopeless situation, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn does in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the accumulated weight of all the depressing details becomes too much and the mind shuts down. But Nelson's play is never overwhelmingly grim or serious. Stroke by stroke he paints the landscape of desperation but does it so deftly the picture is fascinating. A master of understated drama, Nelson fills The Grey Zone with low-key but telling dialogue: a discussion of the clothing left behind, talk about a camp revolt, a throwaway line from the SS officer guarding the men revealing that he believes he won't survive the war either. (In fact, the officer this character is based on was hanged for war crimes in Krakow in 1947.)

Nelson also includes two remarkable real-life events: the ravens' discovery of a young girl who somehow survived the gas chamber and a 1944 uprising at Auschwitz, which put an end to the SS's use of special squads. A melodramatic or sentimental writer might have made more of both incidents. But Nelson prefers to underplay the discovery of the girl: instead of the occasion for a love story, she serves to remind us of the thousands killed every day at the camps; wisely, Dado has cast an actress as pale as a corpse, Corryn Cummins. And where Spielberg might have turned the revolt into a major act of heroism, perhaps even a turning point in the war, Nelson is much more realistic. The prisoners' small uprising is almost comically easy to put down. The men are poorly armed and unsupported by the non-Jewish camp resistance movement (which, some have theorized, preferred to bide its time until the war ended). But planning the revolt brings light into the ravens' lives. They know that the uprising will probably fail. But it's an act that validates their existence even as it guarantees their death.

Nelson, a screen and stage actor, has written other plays, including Eye of God (well received when Profiles produced it four years ago). But he's best known for his role as the goofiest fugitive in the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Perhaps because he's an actor, Nelson knows exactly how to make each of the these dehumanized cogs in the Nazis' machine--prisoners and guards alike--into a unique individual.

The cast are also adept at defining their characters, and Dado coaxes remarkable performances from everyone. Mark Vallarta adds a touch of Dustin Hoffman to his performance as a perhaps untrustworthy go-between from the resistance movement to the special squad. Nervously shifting from foot to foot and alternately grimacing and flashing a quick, furtive smile, he looks like nothing so much as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Similarly, tall, thin Andy Rothenberg, a talented comic actor, adds just a tincture of sardonic humor to his otherwise deadly serious crematorium worker. Doug Vickers--often an over-the-top actor--makes something new of a role that might have been reduced to a cliche, the cruel SS officer. Thanks to Vickers's subtlety and finesse, we see the man's sadism and his humanity, his smugness and self-pity, his flashes of cruel narcissism and growing understanding that the Yiddish graffito scrawled in one of the undressing rooms--"No one gets out of here alive"--applies to everyone.

Well, not quite. In the play's somewhat weak epilogue, we learn that at least one prisoner--talented Jewish physician Nyiszli, who spends the war aiding the notorious Dr. Mengele in his experiments--will survive to tell the tale. But having survived, he's haunted by the past. As ably played by Troy West, Nyiszli is clearly a man tangled in the same questions as Primo Levi: How does one make sense of such an experience? How can one communicate this understanding to others? The paradox is that Dado's graceful production of Nelson's powerful play communicates so much in such a small space and short amount of time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.

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