Story: John Halder’s life is structured by music. He’s moved and controlled by melodies, compositions and rhythms that bring form and orderliness to the arbitrary nature around him. Of course, the music is within his head and doesn’t permeate the external world. Still, he relies upon its beauty and consistency as he rationalizes who and what he is.
Specifically, Halder is a professor of literature at a university in Frankfurt, Germany in 1933. He is married and the father of two children, but his wife Helen is a self-absorbed sort who can’t summon the energy or simple brainpower to cook a meal, much less run a household. Additionally, he’s annoyed by his aged mother and her increasing descent into dementia. This frustrates John, but he explains away his unhappiness as he escapes into his internal music.
He shares his anxieties with his best friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice. John also finds himself increasingly attracted to a winsome student named Anne, who comforts him physically and emotionally. Even as he capitulates to adultery, Halder rationalizes his behavior and maintains his perception of himself as a good husband, father, son and friend.
When Halder is approached about joining Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement, he sees career opportunities even while he dismisses Nazi anti-Semitism as mere flag-waving for the masses. As Hitler’s rise to power progresses, and Halder benefits materially from his role in the SS, he continues to convince himself that theories about euthanasia, genetic purity and self-satisfaction are, all in all, quite ‘good.’
Highlights: Playwright C.P. Taylor churned out a prolific assortment of nearly 80 plays in his relatively short life, dying at age 52 in 1981. That also was the year he wrote Good, his best-known work and a drama that has been described as the ‘definitive’ piece about the Holocaust written in the English language. It was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company that same year, and received its local premiere about 30 years ago when City Players of St. Louis mounted a memorable production directed by a young Milt Zoth.
Three decades later, Zoth takes another look at Good and delivers a powerful, engaging and engrossing St. Louis Actors’ Studio presentation which emphasizes Bertolt Brecht’s observation that evil flourishes when good people do nothing.
Other Info: Key to the success of this rendition is B. Weller in the central role of Halder. It’s critical to the plot of Good that Halder be portrayed not as duplicitous but rather as a dupe, which Weller achieves in slow and subtle gradations. His Halder is a master of rationalization, a man who runs away from convictions in apologetic fashion, convincing himself of his nobility even as he allows outside forces to shape his soul and his destiny. Rarely does Weller’s emotion reach the level of rage. Rather, his Halder methodically drifts along on prevailing winds that Halder ludicrously believes emanate from his own psyche.
Zoth somehow manages to keep his cumbersome cast from bumping into one another on the postage stamp known as the Gaslight Theater stage, all the more remarkable since the 10 players remain visible throughout. So, too, does musician Tim Hearn, who adroitly addresses the keyboard tucked into the rear of stage right on set designer Patrick Huber’s functional set. Huber’s lighting allows for tiny areas to represent Halder’s home as well as a Nazi office or even a Frankfurt park, while players not involved in a particular scene are seated elsewhere. Cristie Johnson assists Huber, particularly with a series of stage lights that shine whenever someone breaks into song.
Robin Weatherall’s haunting sound design and meticulously calibrated musical direction are integral to the play’s emotional impact. Felia Katherine Davenport’s costumes carefully address each character’s station, none more so than the ill-fitting suit that adorns Halder and indicates his awkward place in the Nazi machine. It isn’t until the work’s stunning finale that Halder finally finds some clothes that ‘fit’ him.
Zoth’s supporting cast includes a splendid turn by Teresa Doggett as Halder’s fearful and inconvenient mother. Larry Dell tests Halder’s resolve to the point of fatal exasperation as Jewish Maurice, while April Strelinger and Rachel Fenton ornament Halder’s persona as his wife and mistress, respectively. David Wassilak commands the stage as an imperious German military man who reveals his own hypocrisy, and fears, to Halder. Troy Turnipseed, Missy Miller and Paul Cooper capably fill minor roles, as does Ben Ritchie as an oafish Hitler and others.
There’s a staccato uneasiness that permeates this rendition of Good, but the show resonates with a chilling power throughout, making for a probing excursion into the mind of evil.
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: October 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb