At Berkeley Rep, 'Watch on the Rhine' Asks Us How Far We'd Go For Our Own Ideals
"Shame on us. Thousands of years and we cannot yet make a world."
This line comes from Kurt Muller, one of the central characters of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, an unsung and not-very-well-known play from 1941 that Berkeley Rep associate director Lisa Peterson wisely chose to revive this season. It's the second cautionary tale about fascism from the WWII era that the Rep has produced in the past year, with obvious nods at the Trump regime -- but this is a more nuanced and complicated piece than Sinclair Lewis's preachy It Can't Happen Here from 1935, which Berkeley Rep used to kick off the 2016 season, just prior to the election.
Hellman's play centers on the Farrellys, a well-to-do family living outside D.C. just before America entered the war. Played in this production with the perfect balance of superciliousness and warmth by Broadway vet Caitlin O'Connell, widowed matriarch Fanny Farrelly begins the play in a flurry of nervousness and gossip as she awaits the return of her daughter Sara who's been living abroad for 20 years. Son David (Hugh Kennedy), a lawyer like his deceased father, never married and lives at home, and we soon learn that the pair have taken in some guests, a count and countess with money woes, the latter of whom, Marthe, turns out to be the daughter of Fanny's old friend.
Sara arrives with three children in tow, and with a German husband, Kurt, whom Fanny has only met once before. There's some suspicious talk around what Kurt does for a living (he says he's an engineer) and why the couple has moved around Europe so much, and by Act 2 we learn that Kurt is an anti-fascist crusader who's spent years in exile, wanted by the Nazis.
The play goes on to explore the isolationist mentality of Americans -- something that was even more entrenched before Pearl Harbor, which incidentally would occur just eight months after Watch on the Rhine premiered in New York and won the Drama Critics' Circle Award -- and our willful ignorance of the atrocities we tacitly accept when they occur beyond our borders.
Without spoiling too much, the play culminates in a confrontation that forces Fanny and David to decide where they stand on an issue that they barely understood before Kurt entered their lives. Hellman also forces the audience to reckon with their own American privilege, and to see parallels between Germany in 1941 and, say, Syria in 2017.
Light holiday entertainment this is not, but director Peterson strikes the exact right tone with this play that for whatever reason has been mostly lost to history. The performances by Elijah Alexander as Kurt and Sarah Agnew as Sara are both excellent and wrenching. At turns challenging and deeply moving, it's a play that's well deserving of revival, and the character of Fanny, especially (who gets many of the play's funniest lines) is a brilliantly written one who gives the piece an ample dose of flawed humanity to counter the ideologue Kurt.
"For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt," says Kurt, in one of the play's most quoted lines. But Watch on the Rhine does much more than offer simple moralisms. It gives us a story of an admirable man who will sacrifice his own life in the effort to quash a fascist regime, and the previously comfortable American family whose own comforts aren't as secure they'd like to believe.
'Watch on the Rhine' plays through January 14 at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater. Find tickets here.