BWW Review: WATCH ON THE RHINE at the Guthrie
Art often is used to expose truths and bring them to the light. Playwright Lillian Hellman's WATCH ON THE RHINE was written and produced just eight months before the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, after years of news of the atrocities of what was happening in Europe trickled to the citizens of the Western world. Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj notes in his program welcome letter that Hellman, an activist and staunch anti-fascist, felt that the moment had long since come for the U.S. to enter the war and created this play as her call to action. Haj put this play into the Guthrie's season, the first time the theater has produced one of Hellman's plays, at a time when looking back at the challenges of the 1940s has been coming up in current events today.
WATCH ON THE RHINE is set in the late spring of 1940 just outside of Washington, D.C., in the home of a wealthy widow, Fanny Farrelly (Caitlin O'Connell). She awaits the arrival of her daughter Sara (Sarah Agnew), whom she has not seen in 20 years since she married German Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander). The Mullers and their three children are coming on holiday to Sara's childhood home at a time when Fanny and her lawyer son David (Hugh Kennedy) are entertaining long-overstayed guests Marthe (Kate Guentzel) and Teck de Brancovis (Jonathan Walker), who have fled Europe and are penniless.
The Mullers' lives over the past 20 years have been meager and it's revealed that Kurt is part of the anti-fascist movement. Teck learns of his identity and as an opportunist, bribes him lest he turn Kurt over to the German embassy. Kurt makes a decision that means sacrificing his family for his ideals.
This production succeeds on many levels. Scenic Designer Neil Patel's setting provides an ideal location for this family drama to play out. Fanny's home is just nice enough to hint at the family's previous grandeur but just dark and aged enough to show that much time has passed for this estranged family. The costumes by Raquel Barreto effectively display the characters' places in society and the times.
The acting is mostly uniformly well done, from the children, who are a bit too wise beyond their years from growing up on the run, to the family dynamics of the Farrellys and Mullers.
While Alexander's Kurt is tortured but strong enough to demonstrate the toll his work and the years have taken on him, what is perhaps the most effective is his obvious love for his wife and children and how that makes his choices even more difficult. Alexander and Agnew's relationship on stage is as real a marriage as any I've seen on stage -- they demonstrate a deep commitment of people who have loved and supported one another for decades.
O'Connell brings a welcome humor to lighten the mood of the show in many moments. Her character bring balance that is needed for this otherwise heavy show. She also grounds the family as its matron.
Walker's performance, while demonstrating attitude, is a bit off the mark. The character is said to be Romanian but comes off more as an affected rich guy. Lack of an identifiable accent is part of it, but there's something a bit too light in his portrayal and it's difficult to take him seriously when he starts blackmailing Kurt.
The accents were part of the struggle for me throughout the show -- with American, German, Romanian, French and other unknown accents it was a bit difficult to keep them straight at times, and felt like it was challenging for the cast, as well.
But that is a minor observance and the overall effect of the production is strong and a solid effort for director Lisa Peterson. The show is split in three acts with two intermissions (the second only five minutes long and enough time to "stretch your legs") but runs smoothly and efficiently, never feeling too long. The show's action is mostly revealed in dialogues but never feels too long or weighted down with talk. It moves and holds interest exceptionally well.
The show also gives audiences much to think about. If you're a student of history, you may pick up on the references to what was happening in Europe before America's entry into to the second World War and if not, the story does provide most of the information one needs.
The Guthrie's dramaturg, Jo Holcomb, created an excellent play guide that's partially in the program but would be excellent pre-play reading for anyone who wants to go into the show with more understanding of the history and circumstances of the play.
And if one can look back at history to connect to what is happening in the current day and keep from repeating mistakes of the past, art such as this is a strong reminder how important that is.
"If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it." (Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects)
The Guthrie and other art organizations make choices about which shows to do each season, and often the choices are tied directly or indirectly to current events of the day. While a subtle nod to the things that are happening in the world today could be easily dismissed or missed, viewers of WATCH ON THE RHINE can look to the timing of the show and events of that day and be reminded of the need to pay attention to the truths of art and what that may mean in the current world's events, and draw their own conclusions.
Learn more about the show and get tickets at https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2017-2018-season/watch-on-the-rhine/.
This production was co-produced with Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and will be closing in Minneapolis Nov. 5, 2017, to move west for a run there. Catch it without a need for a plane ticket now at Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium.
Huxley Westemeier (Bodo Muller), Elijah Alexander (Kurt Muller), Silas Sellnow (Joshua Muller) and Kate Regan (Babette Muller) in Watch on the Rhine. Photo by Dan Norman.