Marsha Mason, foreground, with, from left, Thomas Keegan, Lucy Breedlove and Lise Bruneau in “Watch on the Rhine” at Arena Stage. (C. Stanley Photography) By Peter Marks By Peter Marks Theater critic February 13 at 1:08 PM Follow @petermarksdrama
We live in unsubtle times, which proves to be a fitting atmosphere for the bare-knuckled, good-vs.-evil symmetry of Arena Stage’s sure-handed revival of Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist melodrama, “Watch on the Rhine.”
The play bowed on Broadway in April, 1941, a full eight months before the United States entered World War II. The timing accorded Hellman’s cautionary plot a gripping topicality, arriving as it did to bolster sentiment against American isolationism and the Nazi threat in Europe.
What unfolds on Arena’s Fichandler Stage in director Jackie Maxwell’s fairly bracing treatment couldn’t be as urgently absorbing as it would have been in bygone days. In the story of the return after 20 years to the suburban Washington mansion of Fanny Farrelly (Marsha Mason) by her daughter Sara (Lise Bruneau) and Nazi-fighting husband Kurt Müller (Andrew Long), some creakiness manifests itself. (It’s better remembered as a 1943 movie with Bette Davis and Paul Lukas). The piece’s convenient villain, a Romanian count played to the dastardly hilt by J Anthony Crane, is, as luck would have it, enjoying the hospitality of Fanny’s household as well. His cultured Continental accent, the universal sign of malevolent intent, guarantees a surfeit of intrigue on the Potomac.
But if “Watch on the Rhine” lacks some of the more enjoyable spite and bile of “The Little Foxes” — the Hellman drama that earlier this season launched Arena’s mini-festival of the playwright’s work — its unvarnished righteousness also comes across at this particular instant as kind of refreshing. Hellman’s seemingly quaint prescriptions for valor and cowardice are comforting given the odd and menacing tide of current events we’re wading through.
Even more rewardingly apt is a moment in Act 2, during which Fanny’s son, David, portrayed with red-blooded American fortitude by Thomas Keegan, reassures Kurt, a German citizen, that this country is without question a safe haven for him. “You’re a political refugee!” David exclaims. “We don’t turn back people like you!”
J Anthony Crane and Natalia Payne in “Watch on the Rhine.” (C. Stanley Photography)
The exhilarated Arena matinee audience erupted in loud applause at the declaration; you’d have thought we were all extras in that scene in Rick’s cafe in “Casablanca,” when the patrons tearfully break into a stirring round of “La Marseillaise.” The reaction tells you about the intensity of feeling that’s been awakened in this nation. And it adds just a soupcon of unexpected timeliness to the mechanics of “Watch on the Rhine.”
Maxwell, who recently left her post as artistic director of Canada’s Shaw Festival, injects a needed warmth into the proceedings, too, a sensation reinforced in the excellent turns by Mason and Bruneau, as mothers of varying calibrations of maternal affection. Into Fanny’s sunny living room, vibrantly situated under a cupola by set designer Todd Rosenthal, arrives the family that will bathe the play in further sunshine: Sara and Kurt and their three children (Lucy Breedlove, Tyler Bowman, and, in an especially impressive performance, Ethan Miller as elder, teenage son Joshua). Long holds his own deftly as the moral center of the play, a resister whose brutal handling by the Nazis betokens horrors in Europe yet to be unleashed.
Costume designer Judith Bowden has a fine eye for the tailoring of the early 1940s, particularly in the fashionable sleekness of the clothes for Natalia Payne’s sharply defined Marthe, the unhappy American wife to Crane’s suitably oily Teck De Brancovis. Bowden also designs a particularly becoming silk robe for Mason, who unsurprisingly masters the challenging trick of mining the gentle comedy in Fanny’s harsher pronouncements. The actress’s instinct for decency allows for an inspired bit of casting.
Although some audibility problems emerge in the production’s in-the-round staging — some murmuring actors need to remember that lips can’t be read when their backs are to some portion of their listeners — you will otherwise appreciate the abundant care Maxwell has taken with this material: the pristine evocation of the period reminded me of other similarly well-manicured productions I saw long ago at the Shaw Festival.
The refinement serves as a counterpoint, of course, to the earthy boost Hellman was giving to the American exceptionalist mind-set, at a time when the rest of a stressed world was looking to the nation to step up and fight.
“I’m not put together with flour paste, and neither are you!” Fanny reminds David as they embark on a more active engagement with troubles beyond their doorstep. Judging from the spectators’ reaction, it’s fair to say that they want to believe that about themselves, too
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Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Judith Bowden; lighting, Nancy Schertler; original music and sound, David van Tieghem; wigs, Anne Nesmith, fight direction, Joe Isenberg; dialects, Mary Coy; casting, Amelia Powell; stage manager, Kurt Hall. With Helen Hedman and Addison Switzer. About 2 hours 25 minutes. Tickets, $40-$90. Through March 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.