In the Garden of the Prison | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

In the Garden of the Prison 

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IN THE GARDEN OF THE PRISON

Playwrights' Center

If you've been keeping up with the world of the TV miniseries, you know that the Holocaust is a hot topic. It's so hot it's even begun to m ove from the realm of the miniseries into shows like NBC's Tattinger's. What was once an ultrasensitive subject, nearly taboo, is now being dramatized almost as nonchalantly as a car chase or a circus. At one time, in the not too distant past, it was important to accept any discourse on the Holocaust, enlightening or not, to prevent new generations from forgetting the atrocities of World War II. Now we have to ask if we are overdoing it, if we are doing more than simply playing to people's love of the horrific. What do we need to remember and what is best forgotten? If the Holocaust becomes fodder for prime-time TV, do we risk trivializing it or numbing ourselves to its horrors?

Michael Brayndick's In the Garden of the Prison, being presented by the Playwrights' Center, answers these questions with a worthy and relevant view of the Holocaust; if it's not a completely new view, it's at least one that deserves to be seen.

The first act, "The Garden," is loosely based on the story of the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess, who was interned in Spandau Prison for more than 40 years (and allegedly committed suicide in 1987). Brayndick's prisoner, Gunter Max, is like Hess the only inmate of his prison, nearly blind and wishing for death. His only contact is with Hans Mendel, a Jewish gardener who escaped the concentration camps as a child, when his family sent him out of Germany and changed his name. Friends they are not, but their mutual need for each other is evident. The aged Max can't see well enough to read his mail, which Mendel undertakes. Max also sees in Mendel a means of escape; if he can anger the gardener enough to murder him, death will be Max's salvation. Mendel's motives are more complex and more central to the theme of director James W. MacDowell's production. Mendel tells Max that he works in the prison because "I wanted you to see we still live on." But Mendel's got other things on his mind. Although he was sent away as a child, he carries the guilt of a survivor. Why should he live, he asks, when the rest of his family was herded away.

This guilt fuels the second act, "The Prison," as well. Max's granddaughter Anna, whose letter to her grandfather asking for the truth behind the stories she'd heard of him spurred a confrontation of wills in "The Garden," also carries her own burden. "The Prison" is set five years later. As a 21-year-old art student in Berlin, Anna has nightmares about her family history and she paints to search for her own answers. She has grown tired of her mother's lies about her grandfather and decides to find out the real truth for herself. As she embarks upon her search for knowledge, she must also find a way to live with her discoveries.

If the Holocaust is to be used as subject matter into the 90s, the perspective represented by Anna, that of the offspring of those who lived through it, seems the most important and relevant.

With any topic so emotionally, charged, there's a thin line between informative theater and weepy melodrama. In all but one instance, playwright Brayndick successfully walks that line, pulling back enough to offer emotion without succumbing to it. His one weak spot comes in the conclusion of "The Prison," which goes on two scenes past its natural ending. Where "The Garden" ends unresolved, with realistic ambiguities, "The Prison" comes just a bit too close to solving Anna's dilemma. Mendel, who also appears in this act, is left searching for his resolution. There are no easy answers, and Anna should not come so close to finding hers. The point is too important here to give way to dramatics.

This aside, In the Garden of the Prison brings up important and timely issues, and this production offers some effective acting, particularly by Jeff Sanders as the philosophical but morally troubled Mendel. He carries a burden without wallowing in it and has the strong presence of a survivor. Dean Peerman's Max is equally strong, but his effect is eerie rather than powerful. To hear this soft-spoken, kindly looking man discuss his horrible past without a bit of remorse is jarring, and Peerman creates a difficult yet believable portrait of a man capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people. Jennifer Marx is interesting in the strength of will she brings to Anna, but I never really felt the pain behind her words.

Time may be running out for the enlightening, relevant Holocaust play, but Michael Brayndick and this cast have come up with the right play at the right time for an audience that might actually need to hear its message.

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