War and Remembrance | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

War and Remembrance 

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Denial

Apple Tree Theatre

Auschwitz Lullaby

Circle Theatre

The Workroom

Fourth Wall Productions

at Wilbur Wright College

By Albert Williams

In his 1976 book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry, Northwestern University professor Arthur R. Butz lays out his case against what he calls the "legend" of Nazi Germany's anti-Semitic mass murder. Contrary to the claims of establishment historians, Butz says, the genocide never took place: "The simplest valid reason for being skeptical about the extermination [of the Jews] is also the simplest conceivable reason; at the end of the war they were still there."

Well, yes, some were. Despite the determination of Hitler and his henchmen, some Jews survived the sadistic slaughter. Some got out of harm's way early on in Hitler's reign; others were protected by sympathetic gentiles like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. And some who were deported to concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen survived despite the astounding odds against them; their accounts are filled with tales of courage and cruelty, fate and chance--of being spared by their captors because they could play the violin or make electrical repairs, of being forced to assist in unspeakable atrocities against their fellow inmates in order to avoid the same fates, of stealing food and clothing from their dead and dying comrades, even of being sent to the gas chamber on a day when the machinery of death happened to stall. Some stayed alive because they were physically stronger than most, others because they were more ruthless--and many because they were determined to outlive their oppressors and tell what happened.

The present-day efforts of "Holocaust revisionists" like Butz--whose book, its publisher boasts, "remains unsurpassed as the standard scholarly refutation of the Holocaust extermination story" and "the Six Million legend"--make Holocaust remembrance not merely an exercise in reminiscence but an urgently necessary campaign. A spate of productions on this theme has dominated this spring's theater season, reaching a critical mass just in time for Yom Hashoah, the time of annual Holocaust remembrance. Following on the heels of Northlight's The Glass House and The Last Survivor, Organic Touchstone's Taking Sides, and Gilead's Bent are three plays dealing with the legacy of Auschwitz and its ilk. Circle Theatre's Auschwitz Lullaby tells of a Jewish doctor spared death because of his medical skills; Fourth Wall Productions' The Workroom concerns a Jewish widow dealing with her husband's death in the years following World War II; and Apple Tree Theatre's Denial, set in the present, focuses on a Butz-like scholar who hires a Jewish lawyer to defend him on hate-crime charges. This theatrical trinity focuses not on death but on survival--and its cost to the survivors and the generations that have come after them.

Denial, a 1995 two-act drama by New York playwright Peter Sagal, is the strongest of the three. For the first act and a half this is a crisp, suspenseful, provocative piece, skillfully played by some of Chicago's best actors. Paula Scrofano stars as Abby Gersten, a liberal lawyer hired by the ACLU to defend Bernard Cooper, an engineering teacher in southern California (as Butz is at Northwestern) whose tracts denying the Holocaust have made him a darling of right-wing groups and racist thugs. Facing federal charges for his alleged ties to terrorists, he protests that he's merely a scholar who can't be held responsible for their actions even if his words incited them. Yet Cooper (compellingly played by Mervon Mehta as a deceptively clean-cut, slightly obsessive eager-beaver type) is delighted with the publicity his case is engendering.

Which is why Abby--a die-hard free-speech advocate but also a self-described "nice Jewish girl"--is so intent on settling the matter out of court. Indeed, this is a classic courtroom drama even though the action never gets as far as a judge; the battle here takes place in the media court of public opinion and in behind-the-scenes negotiations in Abby's high-rise office. Her antagonists are also Jewish: Adam Ryberg (Erik Lochtefeld), a dedicated, yarmulke-wearing Justice Department attorney who's determined to put the hatemongering Holocaust heretic behind bars even if it means trampling on the Bill of Rights, and Noah Gomrowitz (Mike Nussbaum, superb as usual) as an Elie Wiesel-like Auschwitz survivor who's made it his life's work to "bear witness" to the genocide in his books and speeches.

Abby, Bernard, Adam, and Noah are all dedicated to the truth; the problem is, whose truth? Abby, a 60s social activist keenly sensitive to the government's propensity for persecuting dissenters, doesn't doubt that the Holocaust happened--but learning about it secondhand she could never understand "why they didn't fight back." For her the lesson of history is to oppose the abuse of official power, and for her Adam's prosecution of Bernard clearly exemplifies that. Both Abby and Adam find themselves facing deeply rooted questions about their mission as attorneys, torn between conflicting interpretations of law, justice, ethics, and morality, which also perplex Abby's ironic assistant, a black paralegal played with appealing wry wit by Olivia Dawson.

Meanwhile Bernard, who's prone to quoting the New Testament ("Bless them that persecute you"), declares that the "lie" of Holocaust survivors is the true "crime against humanity." Initially delighted to meet and debate Noah, Bernard is soon sucked into a rabid rage against his esteemed foe, revealing the neurosis underlying his superrational facade; not a Nazi by ideology, Bernard is a classic fascist emotionally. And Noah--shrewd, diplomatic, but deeply committed to his cause--is driven by a sense of truth that only he fully comprehends. Though dedicated to exposing the evil of Nazism, he's also burdened with a survivor's guilt whose depths are greater than anyone realizes until the play's confessional confrontation between him and another elderly concentration-camp survivor, played with crusty strength and self-deprecating humor by Nathan Davis.

A fascinating, often electric package of philosophical and emotional conflicts, Denial comes up short only at the very end, when it spirals out of control and succumbs to a second-act fever of overplotting. It's as if Sagal didn't trust his writing or the facts of the Holocaust to make his case without a heavy-handed final flourish. He needn't have worried. His strong characters and the enduring controversy are more than enough to make Denial worth an audience's attention.

A similar problem plagues Auschwitz Lullaby, by Chicago Catholic-school teacher and Villa Park resident James C. Wall. Inspired by the diaries of one Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, this grim weeper serves as a handy preface to Sagal's script. In its impressive opening, the protagonist, a pathologist named Isaac Jonah, arrives in Auschwitz in 1944 and quickly realizes that he's entered hell on earth. Separated from his wife and daughter, he's assigned to assist the camp's doctor--Josef Mengele, whose horrific experiments on doomed prisoners won him the nickname "Angel of Death." Here is a gripping premise: a Jewish man devoted to preserving lives is forced to participate in their extermination in order to save himself and his family.

Yet Wall quickly deviates from his setup to pursue an improbable, melodramatic plot. Isaac and a fellow inmate find a teenage girl miraculously left alive in the gas chamber and conspire to hide her and ship her to safety. To do so they must steer clear of two troublemakers: the morphine-addicted SS officer who supervises the crematorium and the psychotic "capo," or overseer, of the women's barracks, where Isaac's wife has been assigned. Wasting precious narrative time on Isaac's efforts to outwit these two twisted tormentors--who always seem to enter a room at the most inopportune moment--Auschwitz Lullaby loses track of the grim historical truth underlying it, instead focusing on personality clashes that seem almost campily exaggerated.

John Sterchi and David Krajecki as Isaac and his coconspirator enact their roles with solid, understated conviction. (Krajecki also designed the low-key but effective set, which Elliot Wimbush has lit with atmospheric dimness to capture the prison's claustrophobic horror.) But Christian Murphy as the SS officer and Janelle Snow as the capo play their roles with a semihysterical twitchiness that seems almost a parody of U.S. World War II propaganda films. Snow's performance is particularly weird, like a cross between Gilda Radner and Peter Lorre with a dollop of Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein thrown in for good measure. By the time this bathetic play reaches its protracted climax--with the tearful teenager, played by Madeleine Mager, singing "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen" (the "lullaby" of the ironic title) as she awaits her execution--it has inadvertently trivialized the horrific events it means to commemorate.

In contrast, The Workroom is a model of understatement--an intriguing, quirky, rarely done play that deserves much better than it receives at the hands of Fourth Wall Productions, an ambitious troupe that hasn't quite negotiated the artistic transition from community to professional theater. Written in 1976 by French actor-playwright Jean-Claude Grumberg (and translated into English by Daniel A. Stein and Sara O'Connor), The Workroom takes place between 1945 and 1952, in the atelier of a Paris tailor's shop. There a group of seamstresses sit sewing men's suits from fragments of fabric--an apt metaphor for a society being stitched back together from the tattered remains of war.

Among the women are the haughty, defensive wife of a civil servant who worked in the collaborationist government that ruled France during the Nazi occupation; a bawdy young jokester; and a soft-spoken young mother of two sons, working herself to the bone to raise her family because her husband, a Romanian Jew, was deported to Auschwitz and never heard from again. As the years pass, this woman--Jewish but a French citizen--stops hoping that her husband is alive and dedicates herself instead to obtaining proof of his death; without such proof she can't claim the government pension that may be due her even though her husband was a foreign national. A series of vignettes charts the widow's gradual acceptance of her situation, which is revealed almost as if by accident as part of the bickering and bantering among the women. Presiding over the group is the tailor, Leon--a Jew who outlasted the occupation and is now determined to rebuild his business.

Inspired in large part by Grumberg's parents--his father was a Romanian Jew who died in the Holocaust, leaving his French mother to raise her son alone--The Workroom is an episodic, oblique affair that requires far more deeply internalized acting than director Stephen A. Donart has managed to coax from his cast. As a result, the production fails to build emotionally; each scene rises and falls, but as a whole the work is monotonous. The most effective performance comes from Corrie Feuerstein as the widow, but she doesn't manage to convey the cost of her character's survival. Perhaps she and the rest of the cast would fare better if the show had a stronger center in the actor playing the eccentric, mercurial Leon--a fabulous character, portrayed by Grumberg himself in the 1979 Paris premiere, who ranges from antic to apoplectic. Unfortunately, actor Dick Kolzow is simply out of his depth, giving the kind of earnest but shallow performance that would be fine in a bit part but is deadly in a dynamic central role.

Still, The Workroom merits attention as a truthful and timely account of the Holocaust's aftermath--a simply stated, poignant reflection on a horror whose effects continue to ripple through our world more than 50 years after it occurred.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Denial theater still by Jennifer Girard; Auschwitz Lullaby theater still by Greg Kolack; The Workroom theater still by Wendy Vahey.

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