Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Abby Mann's Judgment of Nuremberg Is a Drama of Substance and Superiority
Willows Theatre Company artistic director Richard Elliott took on a major challenge by presenting the new stage adaptation of the 1961 award winning film Judgment at Nuremberg. The ensemble of actors and the set designer make this a first class production that gives great insight into the 1945-1946 international tribunal that tried twenty-two high level Nazi officials for war crimes. This adaptation centers on one of the trials known as The Justice Trials. It is still a timely drama since Clinton signed the Rome Treaty for an International Court based on the principals of the Nuremberg tribunals.
My own interest in this production is very personal. I experienced this type of trial in the Philippines after the surrender of the Japanese when I was one of the cameramen to film the Santo Thomas prison camp where horrendous things happened. The Willows' presentation of the courtroom scene is right on the mark, with the stiffness and businesslike manner in the first act. This act is a setup for some very great dramatic confrontations between the major characters in the second act.
Abby Mann started this journey of the Nuremberg trials by first presenting a 90-minute teleplay on CBS' prestigious "Playhouse West" on April 16, 1959 with Claude Rains playing the American judge Dan Haywood and Maximilian Schell playing the young German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe. Paul Lukas played the German judge Ernest Janning who toed the Nazi line well into the 1940s. Filmmaker Stanley Kramer was so impressed with the television production that he secured the rights to make a major film based on Abby Mann's script. The director got an all-star cast, with Spencer Tracy playing the American jurist and Maximilian Schell repeating his role. He gave Judy Garland one of her greatest dramatic roles as prosecution star witness Maria Waller. She was nominated for an Oscar while Schell walked off with the award for best actor.
Tony Randall's National Theatre produced a stage version at the Longacre Theatre during the spring of 2001. It had 45 previews and 56 performances. Maximilian Schell changed roles, this time playing the German judge Earnest Janning. George Grizzard was the American judge while Michael Hayden took over as the German defense attorney. Mr. Randall's staging was very simple, using only boxes and platforms for the trial with little or no scenery. The reviews were mixed. Since that time very few regional theatres have tackled this most difficult subject. The Shattered Globe Company in Chicago did a production two years ago which received positive reviews.
Judgment at Nuremberg follows the script of Kramer's 1961 film. Dan Haywood (George Maguire), an ambitious judge from "the backwaters of Maine," arrives in Nuremberg in 1947 to preside over the trial of three German judges. This was not a crime of war but a crime against humanity. They did not make the laws that involved sterilization or the "Jewish problem," but they used the new laws for their judgments.
Oscar Rolfe (Mark Farrell), a young and brilliant German attorney, is hired to defend the three judges, headed by Ernest Janning (Robert Parson), a German jurist of international reputation who claims he never thought the holocaust would occur based on his rulings. American prosecutor Colonel Parker (Robb Bauer) is a very patriotic person who firmly believed that that the German judges were just as guilty as the higher ups in the Nazi government after he witnessed the concentration camps where millions of Jews, gypsies and other "undesirables" were killed . Other interesting characters are Mme. Bertholt (C. Dianne Manning), the widow of a celebrated German general who was executed as a criminal, who is looking toward the future of the German people rather than the past, and Mrs. Habelstadt (Sally Hogarty), the housekeeper who says the German people did not know what was going on during the killings of the Jews. As she says, "As for the bad things - we didn't know about such things - and if we did know, what could we do?" The rest of the cast with small roles are all excellent.
We see the trial being affected by politics, as the Cold War is now starting with the Russians taking over the Czech government next door. We begin to see that America will need the Germans as a buffer between capitalism and communism. American government now needs the German nation to be on their side if they are to be successful in fighting the oncoming Russians.
Judgment at Nuremberg starts out slow, and the first act is talky and motionless with little or no dramatic input. However, director Richard Elliott craftily uses this act as a set up for the explosive second act where we see riveting dramatic monologues and arguments as to who was at fault for the rise of Nazism. The playwright is asking, as people since the trial have been asking, the hard and still pertinent questions about individual responsibility in a "my country right or wrong" world.
George Maguire (Dancing at Lughnasa, Othello and She Stoops to Conquer last year) heads a superb cast of talented players. He is the personification of a very confused judge at the beginning of the drama but soon becomes his own master at the end of the production. He gives a spellbinding performance when Haywood confronts Oscar and later Ernest on his strict judgment of the judges.
Mark Farrell (Fantasticks, BATCC Award for Best Actor last year, Noel and Gertie at Center Rep) plays the young idealistic German attorney as a confused and conflicted individual. He is passionately persuasive in his courtroom scenes. His speech in the second act when he accuses the American government of dropping the atom bomb on Japanese cities, killing millions of civilians, is excellent. Robert Parsons (Black Rider, Colossus of Rhodes, Buried Child at ACT) gives a quietly effective performance as Ernest who comes into his own with his magnetic dramatic monologue as he attempts to inform the court of the reasons why he carried out the laws of the Nazi government. Robb Bauer (Shakespeare in Hollywood at TheatreWorks) as prosecuting attorney Parker is like a bulldog determined to punish the judges.
C. Dianne Manning (Dog Act at Shotgun) is truly memorable as Frau Bertholt and very convincing as the widow who was unhappy with the way her Nazi general husband was branded a criminal and died by the use of the rope rather than a military firing squad. Sandra Jardin (All in the Timing, Othello at Calaveras Rep) is very sympatric as the prosecution's chief witness, especially when the defense attorney attacks her story of racial mixing with an elderly Jewish man. Jeff Lowe (Night of the Hunter at the Willows) is wretched though low key as Rudolf Peterson, the victim of forced sterilization. Sally Hogarty (Mountain Days: The John Muir Musical) is very good as the housekeeper who claims she did not know anything about what was going on in the camps near Nuremberg.
Jean-Francois Revon's scenic design gives a detailed appearance of a military court as I knew it in Manila. Where the National Actors Theatre used a bare stage with platform, director Richard Elliott goes all out to produce a replicate military courtroom covering the complete stage. This courtroom is on two turntables turned around to show a very detailed bombed out building on stage left and scenes of a bar room, the front room of Frau Bertholt home plus other incidental scenes. It is an amazing set and Elliott's direction is smooth with no dull spots for this very large cast.
Judgment at Nuremberg runs through May 29th at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Boulevard, Concord, CA. Tickets can be obtained at 925-798-1300 or online at www.willowstheatre.org.