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Theatre in Review: All Our Children (Sheen Center)

John Glover, Karl Kenzler, Sam Lilja. Photo: Maria Baranova

One of the more horrifying aspects of life under the Third Reich is given surprisingly bland treatment in this new drama. All Our Children focuses on Aktion T4, the program of extermination for German citizens suffering from Down syndrome, mental illness, epilepsy, and other neurological and psychological disabilities. According to historians, seventy thousand were killed between 1939 and 1941; by the end of World War II, the death toll was over two hundred thousand.

This is the kind of radical evil that is difficult to take in -- it raises dismaying questions about humanity that can keep one up at night -- and an old-fashioned drama on the Ibsenite model may not be the most effective way of dealing with it. Nevertheless, this is the path that playwright Stephen Unwin has taken, deploying five characters with clockwork precision and doling out arguments with the deftness of a moderator at a panel discussion. It is careful, well thought out, and surprisingly false.

At the center of the action is Victor Franz, director of a children's clinic near Cologne. Originally, Franz strove to cure his patients or, at least, to improve their functioning. Now, working with Eric, an administrator and SS officer, he signs off on routine transports in which dozens of young patients are carted off to their deaths. Interestingly, the most disturbing passage in All Our Children is the least dramatic: The sight of Franz and Eric casually shuffling through a set of files, assembling a list of the next victims, is a chilling illustration of Hannah Arendt's thesis about the banality of evil. They might as well be planning an office reorganization.

In truth, Franz's work is killing him. Middle-aged and thick around the middle, he is destroying his health with all-night cognac binges and chain-smoking, never mind the constant hacking cough that sometimes produces blood. A good German bureaucrat, he clings to the argument that, as a doctor, he would never kill anyone; he merely passes his patients along for someone else to do the job. He also subscribes -- or tries to -- to the government line that the program is actually an act of mercy, releasing troubled families from agonizing responsibilities. "They are grateful," Eric, trying to buck Franz up, says of the parents. "They all are, deep down. And what about that mother who wrote to the F├╝hrer thanking him for putting her spastic son out of his misery? They hate their children when they're like that. It's just that some of them won't admit it."

Such illusions are subjected to assault by two intruders. The first is Elizabetta, whose son, beset by a cocktail of illnesses, is under Franz's care; she appears in the guise of a grateful mother, bearing a stollen as a thank-you gift, but is in fact desperate to get a glimpse of the boy, whom she hasn't seen in over a year; parents are not allowed to visit, for obvious reasons. This initial sortie is a failure, but she returns later, holding a letter confirming her son's death, seeking to vent her fury. Partly because the dialogue sounds anachronistically modern -- "This country's completely fucked," she says, before offering a prophecy of Cologne in ruins that is historically accurate -- and because actress Tasha Lawrence plays the scene on a single note of rage, this scene fails to convince. It doesn't help that Franz has little or nothing to say for himself; he tends to repeat the same arguments, to little effect.

Next comes Clemens von Galen, a Roman Catholic bishop and real-life historic figure, who arrives to protest Aktion T4. This scene, which should provide the action with a blistering clash of ideas, a brutal moral accounting, amounts to a surprisingly tame exchange of views. Von Galen does manage to denounce Franz's institution as "a charnel house," but only a few lines later both are appreciating the fine wine served from the doctor's cellar. Franz does admit that he sees his patients through the lens of his mother, who lingered for years, suffering from dementia. And von Galen is given a homily to deliver, which can be summed up in these lines: "We too think that everything can be measured, weighed up, that every man has his price. We've forgotten what Christ meant when he said, 'Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.' We've forgotten the things that matter."

This confrontation, which is put off until in the last third of the ninety-minute play, is a lost opportunity, for von Galen was a far more complicated figure that the pious, dogma-dispensing figure depicted here. He did speak out courageously against Aktion T4 and was something of a thorn in Hitler's side; later, after the war, he spoke out against certain excesses of the Allied occupation. However, his relationship to the Nazi regime was far more complicit than Unwin's script is willing to admit. An opponent of Bolshevism and the Weimar Republic, he more or less welcomed National Socialism; after World War I, he advocated for a plan to colonize Eastern Europe. He was also a proponent of the Dolchstoss theory, which claimed that Germany lost the First World War because of the undermining effect of weak-kneed politicians; this argument paved the way for Hitler's rise. He supported war against Russia. And, according to Wikipedia, "Parts of a sermon he gave in 1943 were used by the Nazis to aid in the enlistment of Dutch men to voluntarily join the SS." He also didn't shy away from characterizing Jews as degenerate and said nothing about the Final Solution; apparently, the deaths of six million Jews didn't rouse an equal sense of outrage.

Thus, as the voice of morality in a play about the Third Reich, von Galen is a dicey proposition. More correctly, he is a potent symbol of the Vatican's dubious dealings with Hitler, a sometimes-symbiotic relationship that, beginning with the Reichskonkordat of 1933, prioritized the preservation of the Church bureaucracy over the systematic murder of millions. (In this arrangement, Catholic organizations that opposed the Nazis were systematically suppressed by the Church.) Von Galen is a fascinating figure -- both heroic and morally blind -- and somebody ought to write a play about him. Here, he is a figure cut from good German cardboard.

Ethan McSweeny's direction is efficient in terms of pace, but his handling of the actors is notably uneven. Possibly because the character is written in such stilted fashion, the normally solid character actor Karl Kenzler gives a fussy, fidgety performance as Franz; he never finds the arc that takes him from administrator of death to a modest example of resistance. John Glover, who has taken to clerical robes lately -- as he did in the Manhattan Theatre Club's recent revival of Saint Joan -- delivers his speeches effectively, but there's nothing underneath for him to get at. Jennifer Dundas gives the most effective performance, in terms of period style, as Franz's maid, who doesn't understand whom she is serving. Sam Lilja is effectively unnerving as the smiling sociopath Eric, a standard piece of Nazi swine.

Lee Savage's setting, with its many-sided stage backed by towering cabinets teeming with the files of the murdered, is evocative, but its sightlines are not the best. No matter where you sit, the actors will frequently be hard to see. Tracy Christensen's costumes are models of period style, right down to the seamed stockings worn by Dundas. Scott Bolman's lighting and Lindsay Jones' sound -- the latter consisting largely of radio broadcasts -- are both solid.

Ostensibly a disturbing, provocative drama, All Our Children is a wooden, obvious piece of work. That those who spoke for Christ often assisted in the rise of a Satanic regime, and, later, failed to speak out against it, is a subject deeply in need of exploration. All Our Children is all right as far as it goes, but it certainly doesn't go very far at all. --David Barbour

(15 April 2019)

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