Story: A representative from the International Red Cross visits a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 to observe first-hand the treatment of Jewish prisoners by German forces. He is greeted by the camp commandant, who welcomes him affably and explains that he has enjoyed holidays in the visitor’s country. He also points out his own library of 100 carefully chosen books that emphasize his love of culture from sundry European sources. The commandant introduces the representative to the ‘mayor’ of the Jewish village within the camp, a hamlet of brightly painted houses, an assembly hall and even a synagogue, all located beneath a looming village clock which the mayor says was built originally in 1492 and only recently has stopped keeping time, stuck perpetually at 6 o’clock.
The Red Cross rep then sees several ‘scenes’ of life within the camp, including two boys playing, a young couple arguing and a little girl with a doll at a nearby stream. He’s tempted to open the door that leads to what the Germans call ‘himmelweg,’ or the ‘way to heaven’ to the camp ‘infirmary,’ but uneasily decides not to do so. After his departure, which leads to a favorable report about living conditions for the Jewish deportees, the back story of the prisoners forced to perform in a play created by one of their elders and the forceful commandant is told in retrospect as the horror of mass extermination envelops the players.
Highlights: Renowned Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga based his five-scene, two-act drama on a real incident that took place in the German concentration camp of Theresienstadt in 1944. Mayoraga’s works often explore the ways in which past and present are interconnected, showing his audiences as much how a period play has meaning in modern politics and world events as in their historic setting. His sobering story is given a riveting and profoundly affecting interpretation via David Johnston’s translation in the current production at the New Jewish Theatre.
Other Info: Mayorga’s play is complex and challenging in its design and concept, but director Doug Finlayson subtly reveals the multiple layers of the script in cunning and fastidious fashion. There are several key technical elements that contribute to the powerful realization of the script. Robin Weatherall’s poignant sound design, e.g., utilizes music written by composers who perished at various extermination camps in the Holocaust.
Michael Sullivan’s lighting carefully accentuates the eerie appearance of the faux village handsomely constructed by scenic designer John Stark, which features a backdrop of the oddly clean houses set before the imposing woods surrounding the camp and beneath the presence of the ‘ancient’ clock tower built to impress the Red Cross representative. In the foreground are the commandant’s office, with stacks of books haphazardly strewn about to reflect their artificial nature contrasting with the rigid working area of his desk and a chart where he plots the contrived elements of his play. Meg Brinkley’s props reflect the ruse designed to dupe the Red Cross rep, as do Michele Friedman Siler’s tidy costumes.
Finlayson judiciously guides his cast through the intricacies of Mayorga’s compelling script in a well-paced presentation anchored by a trio of mesmerizing performances. Jerry Vogel introduces us to the story as the remorseful Red Cross representative, who works hard to convince himself as well as the audience that he truly was conned into believing conditions for the prisoners were humane all those years ago upon his original visit. He portrays the rep as a man working earnestly to believe that he didn’t see what his heart told him was taking place.
Jason Cannon brings a chilling resonance to the part of the commandant. His Nazi officer is more convincing with his ‘banality of evil’ references to the mysteries of “Jewish humor” and venal but oblique comments about the camp and the cruel death that awaits prisoners on the ‘himmelweg’ than a more directly insidious approach might be. His off-handed observation about the ‘shadow of smoke’ that lingers above the village implies that visits by outsiders are ongoing even as the exterminations continue.
As the concocted ‘mayor’ of the Jewish village, Terry Meddows is superb at showing the desperation of the elder to extend the lives of as many of his fellow prisoners as possible, even as he resists as much as he can capitulating to the brazenly morally bankrupt demands of the commandant.
Mayorga conveys a poignance and tender sadness for the situation as much with the silence of the players in the first scene as with the stilted attempts at ‘reality’ conveyed by actors in the play-within-a-play scenes. Contributing to that cumulative effect are Julie Layton and Scott McMaster as the quarreling lovers, with Layton’s defiant character quietly replaced by Shaina Schrooten in a subsequent scene. Braden Phillips, Parker Donovan, Matthew Howard, Leo Ramsey and Drew Reddington portray various boys at play, while Elizabeth Teeter sparkles as a young girl whose innocence and intelligence goes beyond the pale of the character she’s ordered to impersonate.
Way to Heaven is a richly conceived and intricately developed script that receives the careful consideration it deserves in this finely wrought realization.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: February 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12
Tickets: From $35.50 to $39.50; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Photos courtesy of John Lamb