Lillian Hellman: Speaking to Perilous Times
Remarkably, Lillian Hellman’s almost 76-year-old play “Watch on the Rhine” — it opened on April Fool’s Day, 1941 — sheds its potential theatrical-chestnut status and reaches out to us with startling immediacy in Arena Stage’s new production, playing on the Fichandler Stage through March 5.
The play, which became a hit 1943 movie starring Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, has only one set, the brightly lit drawing and living room of a stylish and vaguely Southern home outside of Washington, presided over by the grand-damish, matriarchal Fanny Farrelly. She is the kind of woman so used to bullying her family, servants and anyone under her hospitality that she gets away with saying just about anything.
Played with acerbic but affecting charm by Marsha Mason (Oscar-nominated screen star of “The Goodbye Girl” and “Cinderella Liberty”), Fanny is a widow still carefully nurturing the memory of her late husband, a diplomat. She lives with her lawyer son David (the appealing Thomas Keegan), who’s carrying on a flirtation with houseguest Marthe De Brancovis (Natalia Payne), the wife of the charmingly sinister and nervously unreliable Romanian count Teck De Brancovis (J. Anthony Crane). Also in residence are a long suffering black butler named Joseph, whom Addison Switzer manages to raise above the historic cliché of the times, and Anise, the French-born servant (Helen Hedman).
They’re all awaiting the arrival of Fanny’s daughter, the much-loved but 20-year-absent Sara (Lise Bruneau) and her husband Kurt (Andrew Long) — an engineer by profession but an anti-Fascist as a life’s work — and their three children. They are, in fact, refugees, whose lives are endangered everywhere except in the United States, which at the time of the start of the play is neutral (the Germans are in residence in France and on much of the rest of the continent).
The play seems stately at first, intent on capturing every detail and nicety of suburban country life, as tables are set, books are put upright, flowers are rearranged and Farrelly begins a patter of gossip, as if she and her son and Joseph and Anise are all a part of a familiar verbal dance. All of them are keyed up at the prospect of seeing Sara again.
The family arrives unannounced, obviously in financial straits and immediately in potential danger due to the presence of the opportunistic and cash-poor count, who plays poker with the German ambassador.
Just as immediately, melodrama — but also almost grand-eloquent drama — ensues, as the morals and ideals of the family, as well as those of Kurt and his family, are tested. Suddenly, we are not just in history anymore, but in the here and now. David, especially, is protective of not only his sister, whom he loves, but of her husband, whom he admires and who brings out his own idealism.
He grabs Kurt by the shoulders, boldly announcing: “You’re political refugees. We don’t turn our backs on people in danger.”
This statement engenders all kinds of thoughts (Paul Henreid singing the Marseillaise in Rick’s Place in “Casablanca” among them), but what it engendered in the opening-night audience was something else again.
Hearing this, the full-house audience pretty much unanimously cheered and applauded loudly, as if this mattered very much indeed, creating one of those spontaneous moments in the theater that went beyond the theater.
That very evening, President Donald Trump saw the legal challenge to his selective travel ban on visitors from seven different countries upheld by an appeals court, to which he had countered in a tweet: “See You In Court!”
The immediacy gave the longish play, which until then had been a patiently and beautifully played family drama, a jolt of tension and a blast of current-event echoes; it was as if the whole play, and our own chaotic times, had melded. That’s not a bad trick for theater, which — along with all the performing arts — is striving in every way to connect to new audiences while keeping the old ones.
“Watch on the Rhine” is the second portion of Arena’s Lillian Hellman festival. The first was a high-powered staging of “The Little Foxes,” which reappeared as part of a film series. A liberal and feminist darling, Hellman was nothing if not a political writer, but she was also a deft, stirring playwright. Considering that this play was set when it was and did not once mention Hitler or Roosevelt or Stalin or anyone else of note, it was nevertheless a powerful defense of the democratic spirit and its obligations (as well as of all the attendant moral quandaries and quicksands).
Directed with dramatic flair by Jackie Maxwell, former artistic director of Canada’s Shaw Festival, the play took its time, only to offer up dramatic and still surprising explosions of action and decision. And it is not only a smartly constructed and paced production, but one that’s acted with verve by the cast, most notably (in addition to Mason) Long — a favorite at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio and Arena — who gives Kurt a manly-man quality. In Long’s interpretation, he is capable of great affection, but almost an action hero, weary of the task at hand but willing to suffer the sacrifices that seem imminent and unavoidable.
It should be remembered that at the time of the play’s debut on Broadway, Europe was already at war, but the United States was in a political battle between conservative isolationists (flying the banner of “America First”) and the allies of President Franklin Roosevelt. By the end of the play’s run, after Pearl Harbor, America was at war with the Empire of Japan and with Hitler’s Germany, and the times had turned truly perilous.