“These are difficult times, a character observes in playwright Stephen Unwin’s engrossing historical drama, All Our Children, that crackles with tension. Nazi Germany’s forced euthanasia program for the mentally and physically impaired is the play’s searing concern. In a concise 90-minutes Mr. Unwin’s masterful writing expertly blends exposition, documentary detail and drama in this American premiere seen in London in 2017.
It is January 6, 1941 and we are in the office of the middle-aged Dr. Victor Franz, who is the director of a clinic for the disabled in Winkelheim, Germany. His amiable devoutly Catholic maid Martha tends to his household. Eric, the 22-year-old assistant director of the clinic’s Nazi fanaticism clashes with Dr. Franz’s weary pragmatism. Eric is also having an affair with Martha’s 15-year-old daughter which causes consternation. Elizabetta is a widowed downtrodden factory worker who stops by a few times as she’s anxious about not being able to visit her son who is a patient at the clinic. There is also the impending arrival of the real-life anti-Nazi Bishop von Galen. He is to confer with Franz about rumors of patients being put to death because of their disabilities.
Unwin delineates each character with tremendous skill, the honed dialogue flows smoothly leading to debates and revelations, all cohering into a solid and emotionally gripping work.
With his mane of steel gray hair, periodically coughing and lighting up another cigarette, Karl Kenzler is quite engaging as Franz. Mr. Kenzler easy going charm wonderfully takes him from mundane chats with the maid, political disagreements with his subordinate, heartbreaking interactions with Elizabetta, and to a blistering exchange with the bishop.
There is an expositional buildup in the classic tradition of anticipating Hickey’s entrance in The Iceman Cometh. Finally, decked out in grand prelate-wear, the serene John Glover strides in as the aristocratic Bishop von Galen. This passionate characterization is another high point of Mr. Glover’s distinguished career. Glover and Kenzler’s duel-like combativeness over the contentious issue enriches the play’s climax.
Cheerily popping in and out is the luminous Jennifer Dundas as Martha. Ms. Dundas’ wide-eyed and soft-spoken presence embodies the essence of the German’s public’s grappling with their convictions amidst horrendous policies. As Eric, the youthful Sam Lilja is a perfectly villainous and unrepentant true believer. Mr. Lilja’s intensity totally fulfills the role’s intentions.
Recalling the impact of Eileen Heckert’s celebrated shattering performances where pathos merged with fierceness, is the commanding Tasha Lawrence as Elizabetta. Visually, vocally and spiritually resembling a Brechtian heroine, Ms. Lawrence is unrelenting as she chronicles her sad existence and seeks the truth. Lawrence’s appearances are high points of the play.
Director Ethan McSweeny excellent work with the cast is matched by his accomplished physical staging on the four-sided playing area. The actors are placed and move so that the audience is able to fully experiences the production from all angles.
Scenic designer Lee Savage’s assortment of vintage furnishings evoke the time period. Most stunning are the theater’s back walls that are filled from floor to ceiling with weathered file cabinets. When Franz goes to one to get Elizabetta’s son’s file we joltingly realize that these symbolize the many such victims.
Scott Bolman’s lighting design is a murky illumination that starkly evokes the past and the queasy atmosphere. Sound designer Lindsay Jones renders the Schubert selections and effects with verve. From the sumptuous bishop’s outfit to the gray factory worker uniform and clothes of the era emblazoned with a swastika, Tracy Christensen’s costume design is flawless.
“Aktion T4” was the post W.W. II term for the German policy of involuntary euthanasia that was instigated in 1939 and continued until the end of the war in 1945, although there was an official end to the policy as of August of 1941. It is believed that between 275,000 to 300,000 people in Germany, Austria and occupied countries were killed mostly by gassing. The rationales ranged from cost effectiveness to the purification of the Aryan race.
All Our Children vividly dramatizes this chapter in history and subtly parallels the contemporary world scene with its depiction of a totalitarian mindset.
All Our Children (through May 12, 2019)
The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture’s Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.sheencenter.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission