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Here There Are Blueberries

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 13, 2024

Kathleen Chalfant, Nemuna Ceesay,
Jonathan Raviv, and Elizabeth Stahlmann

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Here There Are Blueberries is surely the right title for this one. It refers to a caption in a photo album, a very special photo album. The phrase evokes a carefree, whimsical quotidian existence, in stark contrast to the unphotographed reality happening close by. Here There Are Blueberries is the latest from Moisés Kaufman, the playwright-historian who often culls stageworks from historical records, such as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project. That's the formula for his latest, written in collaboration with Amanda Gronich, a New York Theatre Workshop co-production with Tectonic Theater Project. Honorable as their intentions are, this time the Kaufman formula fails to come to a boil.

About that photo album. It arrives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., represented by Derek McLane's set mostly as movable tables and chairs, strongly recalling Mark Wendland's underwhelming work last season on I Can Get It for You Wholesale. A retired U.S. lieutenant colonel submitted the album, believing it to be photos from Auschwitz. Researcher Rebecca Erbelding (Elizabeth Stahlmann) is skeptical; few photos were taken at the largest concentration camp, the Nazis being reluctant to document the grim reality. But these turn out to be authentic, and, more curiously, only of camp staff–no victims photographed.

So we're off on a journey of discovery. Who were these people, how complicit were they in what was going on beyond the camera lens, and how did they feel about participating in mass murder, assuming they were aware of it? Salient questions, and sometimes thrillingly conveyed by the photos themselves, excellently displayed via David Bengali's projection design.

What's less thrilling are the goings-on at the research library, largely dry personnel saying dry things to one another in dry surroundings. Is that really the great Kathleen Chalfant? She's Judy Cohen, director of the museum's photo collection, and Judy's utterings are so informational and dispassionate, Chalfant barely gets to create a character. The debates among her, Rebecca, and the other workers feel rote next to the enormity of the Holocaust itself.

The museum devotes its attention mainly to the six million victims; does it even want photos of the tormentors? (It does.) How do the researchers uncover the truths behind the album? (With ... research, and a few educated guesses.) Should the photos be displayed? (Yes.) Did the lower-level subjects in the pictures even know about the crematorium, the ovens, the horrors? That's actually interesting, and so is seeing how the museum staff gets to the bottom of it–it plays like a good mystery.

The owner of the album, it turns out, was one Karl Höcker (Scott Barrow), who advanced from bricklayer to bank teller to a top administrator at the camp. As part of his duties, he wrote a daily report on the events there, a feel-good summary sounding like the newsletter at a Catskills summer camp. He probably shot some, but not all, of the photos. And after the war, like so many SS, he rationalized his activities into an I-was-only-following-orders stance that's still shocking, even after so many Holocaust books and dramatizations.

The photos are, in and of themselves, innocuous; the "here there are blueberries" one depicts Höcker with the Helferinnen, the female communications staff at the camp. He's dishing the berries out to them on a wholesome day outing to Solahütte, a nearby chalet Auschwitz personnel repaired to for fun in the sun. But it's such pictures' very innocuousness that is so appalling in context.

As they're released, the photos generate comment and startled reactions. Tilman Taube (Jonathan Raviv) recognizes his grandfather in one and contacts Rebecca, who urges him to reach out to other offspring who might be able to assist in the museum's research. Peter Wirths (Grant James Varjas) meets with Taube, sees his father in the photos, and learns of his dad's complicated history there: some good deeds amid otherwise complete capitulation to the cause. Rainer Höss (Charlie Thurston), grandson of Rudolf, creator of Auschwitz, speculates on the normality of the photos of his family, a happy existence a few feet from the genocide. (This section is quite a lot like The Zone of Interest, last year's Best Picture nominee.) Melita Maschmann (Erika Rose), a former head of the B.D.M., the youth group from which the Helferinnen evolved, conveys the moral compromises implicit in such a position and how she weaned herself away from them. These scenes have some moral heft, and so does the story of Lili Jacob (also Stahlmann), a camp survivor who uncovered a second album, one that showed inmates.

But the whole atmosphere is somewhat muted. Where's the outrage, the astonishment? Kaufman, also directing, keeps the emotions largely tamped down. Even more so for the museum staff, who populate most of the scenes and who deal in factoids and data, their undramatic, levelheaded responses virtually a job requirement. There are pockets of revelation: Jacob's testimony, and the younger Höss's insistence on keeping the disgraced family name, because "It's my best revenge–to live my life differently ... and tell the truth of who I am."

But such incisive moments are outliers amid an excess of archivists archiving, engaging in bloodless conversations about museum policy. The visual feast of photos aside, Here There Are Blueberries doesn't reveal much that we haven't trafficked in before. "Never Forget," goes the old warning about the Holocaust, and that goes double these days. But one suspects there are better ways to keep this tragic memory alive. Kaufman's you-are-there reportage was so effective for The Laramie Project. Why isn't it this time?

Here There Are Blueberries
Through June 16, 2024
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., New York NY
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