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REVIEW: Watch on the Rhine Indicts the Do-Nothings (Guthrie Theater)

The Muller family together in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Watch on the Rhine: Bodo (Huxley Westemeier), Kurt (Elijah Alexander), Babette (Kate Regan), and Joshua (Silas Sellnow). Photo by Dan Norman.

I didn’t realize when I sat down to watch Watch on the Rhine that the play’s title is the English translation of “Die Wacht am Rhein”. This German patriotic song was popular in that country during World War I and later appropriated by the Nazis; it is a featured element in the Guthrie’s terrific revival of Lillian Hellman’s great anti-Fascist play. (The play is co-produced with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.)

If you’re a Casablanca buff, you will recognize “Die Wacht am Rhein” as the song that the German soldiers try to sing in Rick’s Café, only to be drowned out by the rest of the patrons uniting to sing “La Marseillaise”. In Watch on the Rhine, protagonist Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander) plays the song on a piano while explaining to his American in-laws how dramatically its meaning has changed over the years. In the song’s corruption, we are meant to see Germany’s corruption as well.

An exchange between Kurt Muller (Elijah Alexander), Bodo Muller (Hal Weilandgruber), Joshua Muller (Silas Sellnow), and Fanny Farrelly (Caitlin O’Connell). Photo by Dan Norman.

The play is set in April 1940, in the countryside outside of Washington, DC, at the luxurious home of Fanny Farrelly (a sublime Caitlin O’Connell) and her middle-aged lawyer son, David (Hugh Kennedy). All the action takes place in the Farrelly living room, where the dark greens and golds give the interior a distinctly pastoral feel. Lushly furnished with velvet upholstery and brown leather armchairs, the room is only dimly lit by pale streaks of yellow sunlight that trickle in through French doors.

These and other touches are part of an exquisite design by Neil Patel. The filtered light conveys the calm isolation in which the Farelly family live out their lives, cut off from the tumult of domestic political strife and the horror of war abroad. As with the 1943 movie Casablanca, another anti-isolationist project, an arrival from the anti-Nazi underground awakens the slumbering consciences of people who should have known better all along.

Notably, the stage play Watch on the Rhine predates Casabalanca by a year – while the latter film debuted after the United States had entered into World War II (Casablanca‘s source material, an unproduced play, was written before this), Watch on the Rhine opened as a call to arms when neutrality was still the official U.S. policy and the desire of most U.S. residents. Its targets include not just hardened or cynical people, but nice people as well – even enlightened, open-minded, worldly people like Fanny and David Farrelly, who do care about the suffering of people being crushed under the heel of European fascism but haven’t been provoked to action.

Watch on the Rhine is packed with topics and themes that seem uncannily vital and relevant to our own moment: xenophobia and immigration, privilege, mass murder, inequality, and corruption, to name a few. However, it is first and foremost an unsparing indictment of complacency and the myth of moral immunity.

Hellman’s script brilliantly uses the Farrelly family to win over the audience at the play’s outset. Fanny and David Farrelly are warm, socially liberal, and hospitable people, sharing a delightfully droll sense of humor. Their banter is lovely and clever, and they clearly adore one another; as a result, they come off as immensely likable. This is key in a play that keeps driving home a message that being likable, generous, and harmless is not enough.

Homecoming in Watch on the Rhine. Note the use of chiaroscuro in the contrast between darkness and light. Pictured: Carley Clover (Babette Muller), Hal Weilandgruber (Bodo Muller), Elijah Alexander (Kurt Muller), Silas Sellnow (Joshua Muller), and Sarah Agnew (Sara Muller). Photo by Dan Norman.

Fanny, a widow, worships the memory of her “famous” husband, a scholar and diplomat. She is clearly a woman to whom family means most of all. When first seen, she is driving her beloved servants quite mad with demands and endless revisions to plans and menus. The cause of these demands is the nervously awaited arrival of her daughter Sara Muller (Sarah Agnew, in a role played by Bette Davis in the 1943 film), who has been living in Europe with her German husband, Kurt, and three children who Fanny has never met.

The family members arrive to a household including housekeeper Anise (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and two houseguests who have overstayed their welcome: a Romanian count down on his luck, Teck de Brancovis (Jonathan Walker), and his wife, Marthe (Kate Guentzel), the adult daughter of an one-time friend of Fanny. Guentzel gives a fiercely honest performance as Marthe, a woman trapped in a marriage to a man who is as cold a spouse as he is cynical about life.

Guentzel’s performance also displays an excellent sense of subtlety. Through small touches like the jaunty way she walks or girlishly sits on the side of a sofa, Guentzel allows us to see through Marthe’s chipper affect to the awful sadness within. Later in the play, when Marthe summons the courage to liberate herself from Teck, Guenzel’s voice shifts to a lower register. To find one’s capacity for defiance after years of submission is, in a sense, to rediscover the voice that has been buried in one all along.

It’s is awfully fun to see O’Connell as Fanny imperiously struts across the stage in her long Bohemian velvet day-robe and shout out orders to her servants like some grand-dame, while also apologizing like a naughty child when called out for being tyrannical. O’Connell showcases a fine deadpan and she mines the occasional zingers that Fanny spouts in Act I.

Drama comes home to the Muller family. Pictured: Elijah Alexander as Kurt Muller and Sarah Agnew as Sara Muller. Photo by Dan Norman.

What seems to start almost as a comedy smoothly shifts to drama and, as the play continues, to suspense. When the Muller family arrives, Fanny and David are taken aback to find the children hungry and dressed in worn-out clothes. Then Kurt confesses that he left engineering a decade ago to join the underground.

A highlight of Act I is a powerful and moving speech narrating Kurt’s transformation from law-abiding German patriot to dissident. Kurt describes a festival in his hometown interrupted by a group of Nazis who took out machine guns and massacred 29 innocent people. At that moment, Kurt says, he realized that he could no longer reconcile the Germany he once knew with the current one. He is faced with a choice. To return to his old life and do nothing would require forfeiting who he is and everything he has ever believed in. If he is to remain Kurt Mueller – the man that he has always been – he will need to sacrifice that old life and resist the Nazis, even at great risk to himself, as becomes clear in Act II.

Hellman, like Arthur Miller, is a master of creating situations in which there are no options that are safe, innocent, or free of sacrifice. It is through such dilemmas that her characters discover what they are and are not capable of – or, rather, what they are made of. In The Childrens’ Hour and The Little Foxes, Hellman mercilessly exposes the depth of human hypocrisy. In Watch on the Rhine, she focuses on exposing the myth of moral immunity, and the tendency of people to rationalize inaction. There are times, the play argues, when passivity is no longer innocent but implicating.

Watch on the Rhine plays at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN through November 5. 

Kit Bix