BWW Review: Kenley Smith's MAIDENS Heralds Auspicious Beginnings for Tennessee Playwrights Studio
There is a collection of photographs - which is easily discoverable online via a descriptive Google search - of SS officers, guards, clerks, secretaries and other low- to mid-level functionaries at Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp located in Poland, which have captured the imaginations of writers, scholars, historians and others intrigued by the era of genocide that was a part of World War II. Taken at the height of the War and at the zenith of the camps' efficient eradication of persons considered dispensable and unworthy, the pictures are horrific in their banal simplicity, capturing the off-duty revelries of the killers, eager to find whatever diversions might take their minds off their workday realities.
The disturbing and disquieting photographs lend a sense of authenticity to remembrances of the genocide of World War II (during which six million Jews [two-thirds of European Jewry] and an estimated five million Slavs, gypsies, "the incurably sick," political opponents and homosexual men were murdered by the Nazis), portraying the private lives of those persons most intimately involved in the killing and providing modern-day historians with an unfettered glimpse into the psyche of those responsible for the immeasurable impact of the Holocaust.
What precipitated such evil in a society that heretofore had seemed so enlightened and cultured? And shouldn't that history prevent us from allowing such atrocities to ever happen again?
Although an over-arching consideration of evil is perhaps difficult to comprehend even three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II and beyond the scope of a stage-bound drama, playwright Kenley Smith nonetheless focuses his attention on the intertwined stories of two such villains as those captured in those wartime photos - Jenny-Wanda Barkmann, a life-hardened concentration camp guard who stood trial in 1946 and ultimately was hanged for her role, and her fellow guard and cellmate Elisabeth Becker, a 22-year-old Polish-born German, with the presence of mind to claim she was a pawn of her Nazi overlords who forced her to commit atrocities of which she was primarily unaware - to great effect and maximum impact in Maidens, an original work given its world premiere production by Tennessee Playwrights Studio at Nashville's Darkhorse Theatre. Onstage through July 13, Maidens is as disturbing and provocative as its subject matter would indicate, brought to life with bravery and commitment by a seven-person cast under the direction of the playwright himself.
The story of the two women is told in counterpoint to the story of Lech Wojehowicz, a Polish guard who first meets the women while a worker within the camp. Lech's recollections of his own exploits during the war ring with authenticity and his language is colorful, repellant and compelling, thus making it all the more vivid.
Molly Breen gives a startling performance as Jenny-Wanda, her lovely face contorted in a smile that belies her complete and utter devotion to Nazi ideals, while Megan Dianne DeWald is stunning as Elisabeth, by turns charming and unprepossessing and at others fiercely despicable and frightening. Likewise, Andy Kanies captures the duality in his character of Lech, at times flirtatious with the two women and at others beastly and disgusting. Their performances are sure to leave you uncertain about your response to the three characters, yet make no mistake about it, you will be awestruck by the intensity of each actor's total immersion in the role she or he plays.
In a contemporary world in which issues of racism and bigotry continue to simmer just beneath the surface in polite conversation, very often bubbling over during fractious debates both political and social, the themes examined in Maidens are certain to engender conversation and retrospection. Parallels between "history" and current issues are sure to be found by erudite audience members eager to divine some meaning in the text and as they struggle to find answers to why and how such evil persists, they may find such explanations to be ever more elusive and indefinable.
Smith's intelligent and incisive script may indeed engender as many or more questions as any answers it may proffer, but what sets it apart from other works of its ilk is the playwright's unflinching focus and commitment to challenge his viewers to consider how their own lives and their own acquiescence (however involuntary and unconscious it might be) to such enduring and engrained evil actually helps to maintain its gravity.
Set in a dark and dank warren of cells in a Polish prison, where Jenny-Wanda and her fellow camp guards are incarcerated following their trials, the playwright - with an able assist from set designer Sawyer Wallace, lighting designer Daniel DeVault and sound/video designer William Kyle Odum - is able to create a world that seems far away from the real one in which audience members come to witness the events that unfold upon the stage. Yet there is an immediacy, a sense of the current, to the production which ensures that the reality outside informs every response, each reaction felt and absorbed by the audience during 90 minutes of searing drama inside.
The playbill for Maidens includes a statement that it is "intended for mature audiences" and its frank and sometimes profane language might make it unsuitable for younger audience members, to be sure, but the subject matter is important history that should be disseminated to every individual eager to learn more about the world in which we live. Particularly in this time of Holocaust "deniers" and fake-news proponents who seek to shield the rest of the world from truth and reality, the history covered by Smith's play is important and necessary information for a well-informed society.
Smith's direction is brisk and to the point, as might be expected of a play that tells a story from history, but he very smartly presents the information in such an even-handed manner that each audience member becomes part of the jury that conveys judgment on Jenny-Wanda, Elizabeth and the remainder of their circle of prisoners. With three cast members (kudos are due to Tosha Marie Pendergrast, Preston Crowder and Becky Wahlstrom for their strong focus and undiminished commitment to their roles) clad in black, their faces unseen in order they might play a plethora of characters both directly and tangentially involved in the story told, Smith is able to show a wider range of atrocities, including those visited upon Jenny-Wanda and Elisabeth as they await their ultimate demise on the gallows.
Smith's storytelling is potent and unsettling: During one particularly disturbing scene, Kanies' Lech leads a group of men into the cells on the night before the women are to be hanged and allows them to rape and torture Jenny-Wanda. With cold and terrifying dispatch, the trio have their revenge on Breen's Barkmann with exquisitely choreographed ease which nevertheless is as impactful as anything you might imagine, leading to Lech himself exacting his own final judgment upon her. It's chilling and completely unsettling, to be certain, but could be even more so if Smith had allowed the scene's cruelty to go even further than it does onstage.
In another dramatic development, DeWald breaks the fourth wall to come into the audience to declare her allegiance to the aims of the Third Reich and to denounce every person she ever sent to their deaths in the gas chambers at the camp. As she rails against the inequities of life, both real and imagined, her complete lack of empathy is made clear and the monster inside her is finally revealed in all its ghastly rage. Perhaps there has been no moment in local theater more unsettling this season as when DeWald's Elisabeth Becker focuses her steely gaze upon you to order you "to the left" and to the line that leads directly to death.
As Lech's 10-year-old brother Josef, Abby West is effective at portraying the impact of war and Nazi occupation on a young boy whose childhood has been ripped away from him, but one cannot help but wonder if the character's impact might have been more forcefully felt had he been played by a young boy instead.
Colleen Garatoni's costumes are picture-perfect evocations of the period and there is an understated elegance to the clothing that helps to further implement the story's impact. Of particular note: There are only two instances in which characters wear bright red armbands emblazoned with black swastikas against a white field - moments that are strongly felt thanks to the lack of theatricality during the scene. Odum's sound design is equally impressive, although we might suggest the use of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" instead of Richard Wagner's music to open and close the play (if it worked for Leni Reifenstahl's Olympia, it could certainly work for Maidens).
As the first fully realized production from Tennessee Playwrights Studio, the across-the-board success of Maidens represents an auspicious and promising beginning that bodes well for the continued creation of new and original works in the Volunteer State, where a burgeoning community of playwrights sometimes struggle to find opportunities for their works to be seen. We look forward for the company's offerings still to come.
Maidens. Written and directed by Kenley Smith. Presented by Tennessee Playwrights Studio. At Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through July 13. For more information and tickets, go to www.tnplaywrights.org. Running time: 90 minutes (with no intermission).