BWW Reviews: New Jewish Theatre's Heartbreaking Production of WAY TO HEAVEN
David Johnston's translation of playwright Juan Mayorga's Way to Heaven is an intriguing play with an interesting concept and execution. Told in five acts, the work, at first, seems to suffer from repetition, until you begin to realize just how this moment in history actually took place. The act which begins after the intermission brings it all together in a much more satisfying and conclusive fashion. Getting there is frustrating at times, but well worth the trip. The current production by the New Jewish Theatre is a spellbinding true tale that will linger in your memory long after the curtain falls on this show. The ensemble work is exceptional, and the story itself is heartbreaking, powerful stuff.
In 1944 a Red Cross representative visited Theresienstadt, a Jewish concentration camp and was amazed at how “civilized” the Jews were being treated. He was unaware at the time, but the whole charade had been carefully scripted to dupe him into believing, and reporting, that the Nazis were allowing the Jewish community to actually have a sort of village complete with synagogue. He was taken in by the words and actions that occurred, and only later realized his glowing report was a complete and utter sham propagated by Berlin. The play begins with his monologue, as he recounts the various people and situations he encountered during a well-choreographed tour of the facility. His guilt is palpable, but he wasn't the only one who misinterpreted the goings on, the Jews who took part were also lied to, making this a particularly reprehensible footnote to the exterminations that were going on behind his and their respective backs. Hope is what the Jews were given as they play acted, but hope was never promised implicitly, and that's what makes this piece so memorable and harrowing in the long run.
Jerry Vogel plays the Red Cross rep who gives his account of the day spent on the grounds, and you can feel his pain as he realizes how he missed out on asking and looking for keys that would have unlocked the mystery and laid bare the reality that this was just another example of Nazi ingenuity. He constantly second guesses himself for not seeing through things, but this was a well planned experiment in deception. Jason Cannon is the well-read Nazi commandant who orchestrates the action under orders from his superiors in Berlin. When anything even seems remotely fishy, he's quick to point out an author he's fond of in an effort to impress the representative. He even recalls a trip to America to throw the rep off balance.
Both are masterful performances, but they're nearly overshadowed by the poignant work of Terry Meddows as Gersham Gottfried, the leader of the Jewish faction, who's charged with the task of casting this little show. You can see the disappoint spread across his face when the commandant orders him to eliminate a number of the “actors” since one of the scenes in the city square isn't working like it should. He knows they will be headed for the “infirmary”, which is really where their bodies will be disposed of, with plumes of smoke and the resultant ashes signalling their demise.
A fine supporting cast includes: Julie Layton, Scott McMaster, Shaina Schrooten, Braden Phillips, Parker Donovan, Matthew Howard, Leo Ramsey, Drew Reddington, and Elizabeth Teeter.
Doug Finalyson's direction is impeccable, and he allows his cast to shine even when they're repeating dialogue you've already been privy to because of the play's unusual structure. John Stark's scenic design uses an expressionistic backdrop to convey the stark, uneasy mood, which is also helped by the interludes of music that Robin Weatherall provides. Michele Friedman Siler does a good job outfitting the cast as costume designer, and Meg Brinkley adds the necessary, but period perfect props.
A challenging work, no doubt, but an unforgettable one as well, this presentation of Way to Heaven by the New Jewish Theatre continues through February 12, 2012.
photo credit: John Lamb