by Ruth Ross
In the Spring of 1933, just months after Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany and the Reichstag (Parliament) was destroyed by fire, slight, young, studious Jewish woman Johanna Stern is denounced, arrested and placed in a dank basement prison cell where she is interrogated by newly minted SS officer Karl Frick. The charge: treason. The evidence: She was seen copying documents at the state library. Is Mrs. Stern an innocent who merely pressed the copy button on the mimeograph machine at the wrong moment? Is she an enemy of the state or a hapless intellectual searching for a strudel recipe in the newspapers?
Both young people face off in Jenny Lyn Bader’s Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library, now receiving its world premiere at Luna Stage in West Orange. The pair plays a subtle game of cat-and-mouse, with the arrogant, enthusiastic Karl attempting to trip up a wily Mrs. Stern. Faced with a list of what could be damning social relationships, she attempts to shrug them off as mere acquaintances, but is she really as innocent as she appears to be?
For a tense 90 minutes, Luna Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith ratchets up the suspense, eliciting sympathetic performances from Giuliana Carr (Hannah) and Brett Temple (Karl) as the plot marches inexorably toward a surprising denouement. Stephanie Osin Cohen’s stark set feels claustrophobic, as conveyed by Hannah’s increasingly anxious pacing around the small playing space. Jennifer Fok’s dark lighting and Caroline Eng’s ominous sound, with its clanking metal cell doors, dripping water, cries of prisoners and muted roar, convey the Hellish feel of the place. The result: an intimate, riveting revelation of insight and courage expressed in unexpected ways. In short, the ability of the human spirit to transcend a terrible situation to find salvation—literal and figurative.
Carr is convincing as the young philosopher who wrote her doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine’s definition of love and who hopes to become a teacher, a post that ultimately will be denied her by her non-Aryan (Jewish) status. Tightly wound, visibly shaking, her anxiety is palpable, but she’s clever enough to project disingenuousness when confronted with Frick’s questions. As the interrogation progresses, we are not sure whether Arendt is lying or not. With his blond, tall good looks, Temple looks like an Aryan god, yet he is not so invested in his new job that he doesn’t respond to Arendt in a personal way, recounting the pick-up line he used on the woman who would become his wife, recalling a favorite teacher, even reciting a poem he liked as a child. In this way, the two young people share their vulnerabilities and discover similarities, quite the opposite to what is expected in such a situation.
Rounding out the trio of characters is Karl Kenzler as Erich Landau, the lawyer sent by the German Zionists to secure her release. Unlikeable, pompous, he voices the sentiments of many assimilated German Jews He’s especially proud of the Iron Cross he was awarded for military service to Germany in World War I (similarly, Anne Frank’s father ran to get his military records to show the Nazi police who’d come to arrest his family), thinking it will inoculate him against German anti-Semitism. Dramatic irony leads us to realize he is doomed, despite his pride in his German citizenship, veteran status and prominent law career.
While much is known about Hannah Arendt’s life, career and ideas, Jenny Lyn Bader has seized upon a little-known event, how she became stateless, that she says “feels especially relevant to re-imagine today.” It resonates with the detention of innocent people on our Southern border and laws that can be changed by Executive Order so that people are being unfairly prosecuted and persecuted.
“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” wrote philosopher George Santayana. Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library reminds us that it is no crime to frequent a library, to expose reprehensible government practices to the world or to copy and share political criticism. The two attractive young people at the center of Bader’s drama may spar and circle one another as they try to get at or evade the truth, but ultimately, humanity wins out, providing optimism for the fate of the human race.
Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through November 10, Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. For information and tickets, visit www.LunaStage.org online, or call the box office at 973.395.5551.
(Photo credit: Mike Peters/MSU)