Thursday, February 2, 2012

WAY TO HEAVEN • New Jewish Theatre

"Himmelweg", translated from German, means "Way to Heaven".  In the context of this absorbing play by Juan Mayorga, it means the sound of the train, and the way to the gas chambers.  The third show of The New Jewish Theatre's 15th season is based on real occurrences, and it is arresting.

In the 1940's, there was a concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where scenes from everyday life were orchestrated by the Nazis for the appearance of normalcy for a group of Red Cross inspectors.  It's within this settlement that our Red Cross representative (Jerry Vogel) found himself years ago.  During a good bit of the first act, he talks about the time when he went to visit that community in the woods, and how something about the place seemed oddly fabricated, although there was a school, a synagogue, a theatre -- all of the trappings of relative comfort.  He also talks about his regrets about what he couldn't, or refused to see back then.

Scott McMaster (Young Man) and
Julie Layton (Young Woman 1).
Photo credit: John Lamb

The next scene shows us what the inspector saw.  After the sounding of a loud whistle, we watch manufactured deception depicting "normal life" in the settlement -- boys spinning a top, a couple arguing, a young girl teaching her doll to swim.  And then again, boys spinning a top, a couple arguing, a young girl teaching her doll to swim.  As much as the participants in this fabrication are urged to improve their performances each time, and focus on their words and gestures, they are too distracted by the sound of the daily train, and the atrocities they are all too familiar with.

The second act shows us the "behind the scenes".  The Commandant (Jason Cannon) has forced one of the prisoners, Gershom Gottfried (Terry Meddows), into helping him stage these scenarios.  Gottfried is often reminded that as long as he's engaged in this farce, he and the other "actors" are not on one of those trains.
Jason Cannon (Commandant) and
Terry Meddows (Gershom Gottfried).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The execution of this chilling production was first-rate.  Doug Finlayson's direction was flawless.  There are excellent performances by Jerry Vogel, our Red Cross Representative, who holds our attention as he sets the stage in the beginning.  Also Jason Cannon, the pompous and intimidating Commandant, whose menace ripples just under the surface, despite his spouting about Spinoza and talk of unity.  Terry Meddows as Gottfried, despising what he's being forced to do but unable to do anything else, was incredibly nuanced.  Wonderful performance.  Also fine performances from the ensemble, including Julie Layton, Scott McMaster and Shaina Schrooten.  Whether they are trying to "get their lines down", or going over new scenes and players, the weight of the group's fate is never far.  Also great work from the kids, especially an impressive Elizabeth Teeter.  John Stark's scenic elements were marvelous and a little surreal, with parts of the set being supported by books, and leaves with typed writing on them, never letting us forget that there is duplicity going on in this little village.  And horror.  Michael Sullivan's lighting was dark and evocative and Robin Weatherall's sound design was subtle, but haunting.  The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler were also spot on.

This play is completely engrossing.  Go see it.  The end.

Drew Redington, Elizabeth Teeter, Leo Ramsey
Photo credit: John Lamb

Written by Juan Mayorga, translated by David Johnston
Directed by Doug Finlayson 
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through February 12 | tickets: $35.30 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Jerry Vogel* (Red Cross Representative), Jason Cannon* (Commandant), Terry Meddows (Gershom Gottfried), Julie Layton (Young Woman 1), Scott McMaster (Young Man), Shaina Schrooten (Young Woman 2), Children: Parker Donovan, Matthew Howard, Braden Phillips, Leo Ramsey, Drew Redington and Elizabeth Teeter.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; scenic design by John Stark; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; sound design by Robin Weatherall; dramaturg, Gad Guterman; stage manager, Lorraine LiCavoli.