BWW Reviews: A Gripping, Wrenching JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG at American Century Theater
If audiences need any reminder of how much we lost when longtime Washington artist Joe Banno moved to the Left Coast, his brief return to direct Abby Mann's classic Judgment at Nuremberg will do it. Opening as it does near the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Banno's production also reminds us just how much we are still haunted by the ghosts of World War II, and the horrific moral dilemmas of those days.
With a large cast that is mostly up to the material Banno has given us a memorable evening of theater that challenges us, none-too-subtly reminding us of our own culpability in the horror; forget plays that give you the cozy, morally superior perch, playwright Abby Mann forces us to think about how we contributed to the monster that was Adolf Hitler. After all, it was our own Eugenics movement, our own mania for forced sterilization, our own use of minorities for horrific medical experiments, not to mention Henry Ford's vicious anti-Semitic diatribes that laid the foundation for much of what happened.
Mann's play was so raw in its emotions and so blunt in its moral castigation of all and sundry that he had to fight to get it produced, both on stage and screen. Only a roster of A-list Hollywood stars got the film made, and a similar groundswell of star support made it possible for him to finally see the play produced on Broadway--after decades of struggle. Ever the creative mind, Banno has still found new life in this material, framing the evening with a series of silent tableaux, dark, shadowy flash-backs to life in Germany under Hitler. In semi-darkness, a supporting cast of shadowy figures with yellow Stars of David move among us, setting the scene for the searing trial that is at the heart of Mann's work.
For those not familiar with the classic film or the later Broadway version, Judgment at Nuremberg is closely based on one of the many war crimes trials conducted in Nuremberg, Germany in the wake of World War II. The suspects at these trials came from all quarters of German society, but in this caseit centered on the actions of the legal community-the judges who rubber-stamped the murder of innocent Jewish citizens as well as the forced internment (and extermination) of millions. Three American judges were faced with an unprecedented legal challenge; how do you try, let alone convict your fellow justices who (like yourself) had to interpret the law as it was handed to them? Given the obligations judges have to abide by the letter of the law and its intent, what legal reasoning justifies sentencing them to prison for doing what the German system demanded of them? As our own wretched history of racial and gender discrimination has shown us, it is no easy task to get the law to yield to the demands of common human decency.
The core of the cast here-the attorneys for both prosecution and defense-provide us with riveting work; Bruce Alan Rauscher gives us a Colonel Lawson who is focused but human, who knows that his case is nearly without precedent, but who knows that the dead of the Holocaust must be avenged. His legal arguments are strong but it is his moments of hesitation, Lawson's occasional loss for words that remind us just how fragile justice can be. Steve Lebens, meanwhile, is positively electric as Oscar Rolfe, the attorney whose task is to defend men he himself has little respect for. The role was made famous by a young Maximilian Schell, but Lebens manages the rare feat of wiping out the memory of stars past in his performance.
Anchoring the judge's bench is Craig Miller as Judge Haywood; Miller gives us a truly sympathetic character, a scrupulous legal mind but also a man made lonely by the loss of both his wife and his judge's seat (seems he lost an election-perhaps recent Richmond primary loser Eric Cantor might find some solace from this show?). Tel Monks makes an excellent foil as Judge Ives, who tries unsuccessfully to draw Miller out of his shell.
In spite of his reclusive nature, Haywood is romanced briefly by Frau Bertholt, a woman from the German nobility who was widowed when her husband was executed after a previous trial-prosecuting attorney Lawson's doing, of course. Karin Rosnizeck gives us a fine character study here as Bertholt, a woman with more than a few secrets, but who desperately wants to show Judge Haywood there is still some decency to be found among the Germans he meets. Her rote denial that she knew anything about the Final Solution, of course, indicates that Bertholt is not all she seems to be.
The suspects, both in terms of character and in performance, are a mixed bag, but still manage to remind us that people respond to trials in very different ways; we have the mute, bible-toting Werner Lammpe-played here by theatrical newcomer Victor Gold-and the outspoken, unrepentant Emil Hahn, given an excellent turn here by Kim Curtis. Tom Fuller gives us a good Frederick Hoffstetter but the prime suspect here is Ernst Janning, the brilliant legal mind and highly respected jurist who-inexplicably?-did the Nazi's dirty work for years before resigning his post. Michael Replogle gives us a Janning who is wise enough to know he is fully culpable, but foolish enough to think that his legal brilliance might gain him the respect of the judges who are about to put him in prison. He manages the rare feat of gaining sympathy for a monster who knowingly participated in a legal system he knew to be corrupt and unhinged.
As for the testimony-legal dramas like this can rise or fall on the quality of those called to testify, and we are fortunate to have Christopher Henley as Rudolph Peterson, the 'weak-minded' victim of forced sterilization, defending his dignity and that of his family against all odds; likewise, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh gives us a compelling turn as Maria Wallner, whose friendship with her Jewish landlord Feldenstein was used as a pretext to put him to death. The charge-alleged miscegenation (which, Nuremburg notwithstanding, remained the law of the land here in America until the late 1960's, as those familiar with the Loving case will no doubt recall). Vanessa Bradchulis gives us a fine, no-nonsense turn as the cleaning woman who framed Feldenstein, but Larry Kolp tends to overdo it as Dr. Geuter: witnesses who testify in court generally don't "perform" for the audience, they focus on the judges and attorneys; onstage and in court, this is the most compelling way to testify. Throughout the part of the play devoted to this case Jay Delehanty haunts the stage as Feldenstein, the gentle, trusting soul who cannot speak for himself but who, in Banno's masterstroke, moves slowly, amiably and innocently in and out of view.
Patrick Lord creates a spartan, grey 'Alley Theatre' set in Gunston's Theatre Two (the action takes place in a broad arena set between two banks of audience seats), and in an echo of the original film version he has also given us the grim, all-too-familiar footage from the Nazi era, as well as the horrific footage shot by American forces who liberated the death camps. Rip Claassen has found appropriately discreet costumes-most of the characters were middle-class, after all-but is able to use a greyer pallet for Banno's flashback scenes. The lights, meanwhile, are a study in contrasts; Marc Allen Wright uses the traditional stage lamps for flashbacks and scenes outside the courtroom, but switches suddenly to harsh flourescents that burst forth every time the scene shifts to the trial. That glaring light with the discreet, annoying buzz (the kind that drives cubical slaves crazy to this day) becomes a righteous character of its own, interrogating attorneys, suspects and judges alike as if to remind us the difficult task that the trial represented. And Sean Allen Doyle provides some nice period music, of various kinds, to contrast with the seriousness of the action.
I can only hope that this doesn't represent Joe Banno's swan song; his talent is already dearly missed-and I don't say that just because we both go back decades here on the DC theatre scene. His inventiveness and his ability to take standard material and breathe new life into it is legendary. Judgment at Nuremberg is not to be missed.
Production Photo, foreground: Christopher Henley as Rudolph Peterson. Background: Tel Monks as Judge Ives. Photo by Johannes Markus
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Performances of Judgment at Nuremberg are at Theatre Two at Gunston Middle School, 2700 South Lang Street in Arlington, Virginia. Tickets can be ordered online through: http://www.americancentury.org/show_judgment.php#calendar or by calling 703-998-4555.