Review: HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at La Jolla Playhouse

Quiet and Impactful drama is the latest from Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project

By: Aug. 08, 2022
Review: HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at La Jolla Playhouse

Has it really been 22 years, more than two decades, since Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project gave us THE LARAMIE PROJECT? Part play, part documentary, LARAMIE examined a significant and horrific event - the murder of Matthew Shepard - and forced us to wrestle down our ways of thinking. Through their play-building process known as Moment Work, Kaufman and the TTP slapped us across the face and changed the game.

Viewers who remember and were affected by THE LARAMIE PROJECT will see parallels in HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES, a beautiful, quieter but no-less-significant new play written by Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, co-produced by the Tectonic Theater Project and directed by Kaufman at the La Jolla Playhouse. Training a sharp lens on the concentration camp at Auschwitz and a historically significant photo album that depicts everyday life not wartime atrocities, the creators of BLUEBERRIES are examining culpability, certainly. But they're also looking at the complicated and delicate ways that we try to reconcile the past.

There have been - and will doubtless continue to be - no shortage of works about the Holocaust and some playgoers may already have long since had their fill on this subject. Notwithstanding, HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES should be staged in every major city in America starting with Washington D.C. hopefully in close proximity to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) where the inspired-by-real- events action of the play takes place.

The touchstone is the Höcker Album, a collection of photos sent to the museum in 2007 by a retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel who rescued the album from a garbage can and held onto it for more than 60 years. The man, who wished to remain anonymous (anonymity as a shield for responsibility is a key theme of the play), agreed to lend and later donate 116 photos to the USHMM.

He says they were taken at Auschwitz. Rebecca Erbelding (played by Elizabeth Stahlmann), the museum's head intake archivist of paper artifacts, is dubious. There are very few photos of Auschwitz in existence. This is because, despite the recent proliferation of photographic technology for recreational use and the popularity of picture-taking in Germany (which the play covers in a visual and quite literate prologue), the Nazis did not want documentation to exist of their wartime atrocities. As it happens, these photos are not of prisoners, but of officers, camp workers and sometimes of their family members. They depict people recreating in chairs, standing around while in uniform, taking a meal or otherwise enjoying downtime at a resort just outside the camp. Some of them are high-ranking officers within the Third Reich.

Through their research, the archivists figure out that the album belonged to Karl Höcker, a former banker turned administrative assistant to Richard Baer, the head of Auschwitz. They are essentially a diary, a visual account of his daily life during a historically significant era.

"Maybe these photos are his legacy to speak to his immediate family in the future. 'My children are going to look at these one day' sort of thing. But also a wider imagined future audience," says Judy Cohen (played by Rosina Reynolds) director of the museum's photographic collection. "Höcker and many other of the top brass of the SS genuinely believed that they were doing historically significant work. So it was worth photographing."

When the discovery of these photos - remarkable for their ordinariness, for what they don't show - hit the press, additional people who recognize their relatives start to come forward, and the archivists learn more. The Höcker album aligns with another photo album from Auschwitz discovered near the end of the war.

The 90-minute play is set entirely in the archive room of the museum. HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES has maybe 20 characters across the world and the centuries, played by a company of eight actors. Kaufman and Gronich could have structured the story around any of these men and women who lived anytime between the war years and the end of the 2000s. If BLUEBERRIES is ever turned into a film, AS THE LARAMIE PROJECT was, its scope and characters could easily be expanded into an exciting docudrama.

But in its live stage form in the La Jolla Playhouse's cozy Potiker Theatre, it's a high-stakes detective story. The images themselves - not the museum workers - seize our imagination. Kaufman, projection designer David Bengali, lighting designer David Lander and scenic designer Derek McLane package the presentation of these photos with expertise, guiding the audience through the clinical and often dispassionate gaze of historians. Major kudos certainly to performers Scott Barrow, Charles Browning, Rosina Reynolds, Jeanne Sakata, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Charlie Thurston, Frances Uku and Grant James Varajas for establishing this world and telling this tale in the unique way that they do.

The work's title comes from the caption of a series of six photographs depicting Höcker and a dozen young women, the Helferinnen who worked on the communications staff for the SS. Although they couldn't fight, this occupation was a way in which women could serve the cause. The presence of young women working at Auschwitz and the question of how aware they were of what was actually happening, haunts the play. As do later revelations.

We do ultimately learn the fates of several of the people from the photos and we also get a glimpse of how some of the descendants of the people in the album come to terms with their connections - distant or otherwise - to the atrocities of Auschwitz. Presenting their story in the way they do, Gronich and Kaufman keep HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES free of judgment. In the play's final moments, Erbelding reflects on what might have happened had the album never been discovered or had its contents been dismissed, stating with simple eloquence": "It keeps me awake at night: how the gathering of knowledge can be so precarious. And we can't leave it to chance."

It's definitely something to think about, one of many many bits of quiet wisdom that this important play offers.

HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES continues through August 21 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Photo of Elizabeth Stahlmann and Charlie Thurston by Rich Soublet II.