There is a moment in the first act, first scene of The Gardens of Frau Hess, when Isaac (Joel Leffert) a botany professor, given a reprieve from a concentration camp to work as a gardener for Rudolph Hess's wife Ilse (Lisa Bostnar), breaks a valuable cut glass goblet. For this physically and emotionally shattered man the broken glass (i.e. Krystalnacht?) could be the end of any chance of survival. But, not to worry, Frau Hess tells us in an extensive monologue that the glass doesn't mean very much since it was stolen from the Russians and is not really German. Immediately the impact of this frightening accident was lost in a polemic discussion of the origin and value of Russian crystal. This essentially is the problem with this play that explains five minutes of action with a fifteen-minute speech.
This moment of fear for Isaac's safety teases the audience. We want to care for this victim of the Nazi hate machine and yet the minute we get close to him the playwright, Milton F. Marcus, pulls us back with an intellectual dissertation or symbolic anecdote. He tempts the audience to connect to his play in the same way that Ilse Hess tempts Isaac to become involved with both her superior Germanic culture and her superior Germanic sexuality. Neither, of course, can be realized. Unfortunately for Isaac, Ilse will always, and tediously, remind him that he is her Jewish plaything, to be dispatched back to the camps whenever it might suit her. Similarly, we are in the playwright's captivity for the play's duration, and he uses this opportunity to tempt us to care about the characters and the situation, but then he ruins the illusion with overly intellectualized discourse and silly symbolism (Isaac must root out the foreign plants from Frau Hess' garden, and replace them with native Deutschland flora).
This improbable two-person play is a fictionalized account of the imagined relationship between the lonely, socially ostracized Ilse Hess and one of the Jewish slave/gardeners she requisitioned from a German concentration camp. Historically, Rudolph Hess, Ilse's husband and the Deputy Leader of the Third Reich, flew to England without the approval of Adolph Hitler in 1941. For the remainder of the war he was incarcerated in England, and was, by Hitler's order, sentenced to death if he returned to Germany. In 1943 Frau Hess contacted her friend Himmler to find an expert to replace her gardener who had been drafted into the German army. Himmler selected six applicants with botanic experience from the concentration camps. They were sent to Frau Hess one at a time. No one knows what finally happened to them. Milton Marcus imagines in his play what Frau Hess' relationship may have been like with these chosen people.
Unfortunately, it is an interesting idea that loses emotional strength as he skirts credibility. Isaac Baum, the selected gardener, not only becomes intimately acquainted with Ilse, but begins assuming the life of her missing husband. He wears his clothes, eats his food, drinks his wine and attempts to sleep with his wife. We learn that the victim can be just as awful as his tormentor. Of course, the empathy the audience could feel for this character is lost along the way. Unfortunately, so is the potential for the emotionally powerful denouement that the author hopes to achieve.
The Gardens of Frau Hess is Milton Frederick Marcus's first play. He is very fortunate to have a beautiful production with period staging of both home and garden by Richard Ellis. The costumes by Gail Cooper-Hecht catch the spirit of the time and include a Third Reich dress uniform. Perhaps with a stronger director (this is Rhoda R. Herrick's first attempt at direction) more subtlety and nuance could be achieved in the competent performances by Lisa Bostnar and Joel Leffert. And a good editor might be able to bring life to these sad characters. Certainly, there were shocking scenes that caught the audience's attention. However, the end result left me unmoved and I don't think that was the intent of the playwright or the Jewish Repertory Theater.
Pictured left to right are Lisa Bostnar and Joel Leffert. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The Gardens of Frau Hess