Which raises the question: Exactly why have a play about a conscientious objector at all? We already know that Jägerstätter was willing to die rather than wear a Nazi uniform. If the point of the play is to remind us that there are otherwise ordinary people who can stick to their principles in the face of overwhelming pressures, the point is made by Jägerstätter's short biography in the program; we don't need the ensuing 105 minutes of theatre. Perhaps the play, originally written in Hebrew for an Israeli audience, was meant to speak to current Israeli events. (Certainly, the play's reference to "occupied lands" could have a double meaning to encompass the West Bank.) Alternatively, perhaps the play, in its current incarnation, was instead meant to bring to mind the war in Iraq. (Given the audience's spontaneous applause after a line regarding corrupt leaders, it was certainly interpreted that way.) Either way, the show is drawing a comparison between Israel or America on one hand, and Nazis on the other.
There are plenty of reasons why comparisons to Nazis generally don't work. Whether it is because comparisons to Hitler should be reserved for genocidal maniacs, or because people so frequently play the "comparison to Nazi" card to end arguments - the bottom line is that calling someone a Nazi rarely packs the wallop that perhaps it should. And a whole play based on the idea of using an objector to Hitler's war to suggest that people today should consider acting on their consciences to reject their governments' military actions just comes off as ineffective for the heavy-handed comparison.
This isn't to say that there is no persuasive value to iWitness. In its subtler moments, such as when Jägerstätter finally explains to the prison priest the reason he could not silently accept a non-combat position in exchange for his life, the show scores points for the path it takes. A scene, in which Jägerstätter's wife Franca dictates a letter she has written to him, has something unexpected to say about the interpretation of the written word. And projections on the upstage wall, designed by Jan Hartley, are a mesmerizing and poetic addition to the play.
But the memorable bits are few and far between. The play's first flashback - introduced as a memory of Franca - shows us instead the character of Margaret, a woman who loves Franz with a clothes-rending intensity, although Jägerstätter rejected her perhaps as much as a decade earlier. Margaret's purpose in the show is somewhat inexplicable, and Katrina Lenk's portrayal, which borders on obsessive insanity, seems only to divert attention from the reason we're all there. Also, the play introduces the offer for Jägerstätter to preserve his life by simply taking an army position in a hospital in the very first scene, yet the offer is reintroduced multiple times throughout the play, as though it is somehow a new, harder-to-resist offer which Jägerstätter has not already rejected. As a storytelling device, it fails, as each restatement of the same offer provides no opportunity for Jägerstätter's resolve to be further tested.
Gareth Saxe plays Jägerstätter as a man of few words and with somewhat stilted speech that may be a vestige of his Austrian accent. (Many other performers do not use accents, making their performances more immediate.) Saxe trips over his lines often, and the resulting picture of Jägerstätter is that he might be slow. When his friend Hans (a delightfully pragmatic portrayal by Seamus Dever) finally convinces Jägerstätter to try on a uniform, the two go into a fast-talking Nazi-mocking vaudeville routine. It's so out-of-character for the pensive, reflective Jägerstätter we've seen to this point, it is hard to believe the scene isn't a flashback to an earlier, more carefree time. It isn't that we're seeing another side to Jägerstätter; it feels like we're seeing a completely different person - and the production offers no real explanation for Jägerstätter's sudden interest in goofing around.
Near the end of the play, there is a final flashback, which may be intended to give us a clue to Jägerstätter's character, and what it was about him that made him so committed to standing by his principles, no matter what the cost. (As Margaret features in it, it is likely the reason she is in the play in the first place.) But the extended flashback doesn't really connect; as a defining event in Jägerstätter's life, it doesn't explain enough, and in some ways it seems contrary to the life Jägerstätter has told us he has led.
The overall result is a one-act play that, instead of progressing relentlessly to its predetermined conclusion, wanders aimlessly over many different territories (including a Conscientious Objector rap) and only occasionally has moments of complacency-piercing truth.
iWitness runs at the Mark Taper Forum through May 21, 2006. For information and tickets, see www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group -- Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director -- presents iWitness. By Joshua Sobol; Adapted by Barry Edelstein from an English language version by Joshua Sobol. Scenic Design by Neil Patel; Costume Design by Robert Blackman; Lighting Design by Russell Champa; Sound Design by Jon Gottlieb; Projection Design by Jan Hartley; Cinematographer Alice Brooks; Hair and Wig Design by Carol F. Doran; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA; Associate Producer Kelley Kirkpatrick; Production Stage Manager James T. McDermott; Stage Manager Elizabeth Atkinson. Directed by Barry Edelstein.
Photo: Craig Schwartz