Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Watch on the Rhine
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Monster, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., and How to Use a Knife

Caitlin O'Connell, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong,
Elijah Alexander, Sarah Agnew, and
Huxley Westemeier

Photo by Dan Norman
Watch on the Rhine premiered in January 1941 with World War II in full swing in Europe, and America's entry less than a year away. Playwright Lillian Hellman was known as a staunch anti-fascist and there could have been little doubt about her play being an endorsement for the United States to take action against the fascist storm in Europe. With Watch on the Rhine directly following Hellman's major success The Little Foxes, she was in a position to have her voice heard.

The Guthrie has mounted Watch on the Rhine in a co-production with Berkekey Repertory Theatre that is powerfully acted, chillingly staged by director Lisa Peterson, handsomely designed, and eerily timely. Though the historical context is different, the play's concerns about sacrifices made to protect freedom and human dignity, the use of political cover to pursue personal gain, and the blissful ignorance with which most people live their lives until forced to face the facts speak to the current plethora of sharply divided world views in our own nation and around the globe. But be not mistaken, the play is in no way a political or partisan diatribe. It is a well-constructed drama, with humor, heartbreak, and rising suspense that keeps an audience in rapt attention.

Watch on the Rhine is not set in a fortification on the German or French side of the titular river, but in the lush living room of the Farrelly's country estate in exurban Washington DC in the year 1940. Fanny Farrelly, a sharp-tongued woman of a certain age, raised her children David and Sara here with her late husband, lawyer Joshua Farrelly. David is now also a lawyer working in the family firm, and still single. Sara has been gone for twenty years, since her study in Europe led to her marriage to Kurt Muller, a German engineer. Fanny met her son-in-law only when they married and has since been concerned about their fortunes, as they have had a string of different addresses after leaving Germany in 1933. The play opens with Sarah, Kurt, and their three children about to arrive for a visit, Sara's first in these two decades. Fanny is fraught with eagerness to see her daughter and meet her grandchildren.

There happen to be other house guests in the Farrelly home: Teck De Brancovis, a broke Rumanian count, and his wife, Marthe, whose mother had once been great friends with Fanny. When Martha and her husband showed up in need of lodging, Fanny offered them a berth. But it has been six weeks and they show no sign of leaving. In fact, as the marriage between Marthe and Teck seems to be on the rocks, Marthe has expressed more than friendly interest in David's attention. Soon after Sara and her family arrive, Kurt and Teck meet. Each seems to have past knowledge of the other from their activities in Europe.

Hellman has constructed a drama that keeps the audience in suspense, never certain which way the plot will turn, yet each twist in the narrative is made both gripping and credible. This is a credit both to the dramatist, the director, and the Guthrie's outstanding cast. Sarah Agnew, an actor who always brings smoldering intelligence to her roles, is Sara Muller, playing the character's range of emotions—her childlike giddiness at being in her familiar home after so many years, her affection for her brother, restraint toward her judgmental mother, maternal pride in her children, and adoring love for her husband—all the while harboring a baseline fear that the tails of the trouble they left behind in Europe will catch up with them. Though this part is nominally framed as the lead (she, along with Elijah Alexander as Sara's husband Kurt, have the final bows, and no less a star than Bette Davis played the part in the 1943 film), Agnew is matched by Caitlin O'Conner as Fanny, a mother who pushes her children too hard, has a smart remark for every occasion, and takes her unearned privilege completely for granted. O'Conner is great with the zingers and superb at ordering the maid and butler about, and provides the greatest shares of the play's laughs, but it is her character who goes through the greatest change in the course of the play, coming to understand that things are far more difficult in the world beyond her sheltered life than she ever imagined, and even to accept a place in that more difficult world.

Elijah Alexander is superb as Kurt, believable in his fierce convictions to fight against the surge of European fascism, tender with his children, respectful to his brittle mother-in-law in spite of her jabs, a strong, loving partner to his wife, and faultlessly earnest. Jonathan Walker as Teck is a terrific villain, darkening his shades of evil as the play progresses. Kate Guentzel is spot-on as Teck's wife Marthe, struggling to find her way out of a hopeless situation, while Hugh Kennedy gives David Farrelly the right air of a man whose fortune was given to him, never having had his mettle tested. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, a graduate of Macalaster College, makes a welcome Twin Cities return as a maid with the wit to hold her own against Fanny, and James Detmar portrays a dutiful butler with aplomb. Silas Sellnow (a veteran of four seasons at Great River Shakespeare Festival) is brave and upright as the Muller's oldest son, Joshua. The roles of the two younger children are double cast. At the opening night performance I saw Kate Regan play Babette as a charming young lady, but it was Huxley Westemeier as Bodo, the precocious youngest child, who made an especially strong impression. Bodo is wise beyond his years, with high regard for order and logic, but still in need of a love and reassurance.

The very look of the production draws us into the drama, even before it unfolds. Neil Patel's beautifully rendered living room set, with dark wood everywhere—the floor, wainscoting, ceiling coves and furniture—is in stark contrast to a rear set of floor to ceiling windows with French doors opening to a verdant garden, lit brilliantly in contrast to the dark interior. It seems to urge us to pass through the dark anteroom to the bright, open space beyond. Alexander V. Nichols' lighting perfectly complements these spaces, changing the exterior lighting as day passes to night and back again, and creating and erasing shadows within the interior that mirror the play's progression. The sound design by Paul James Prendergast provides the ambient outdoor sounds as well as original music to open and close scenes that could have been lifted from a film noir soundtrack. Raquel Barreto's costumes are beautifully matched to the styles of the era and the social status of the characters.

Watch on the Rhine was well-received by critics and audiences in 1941, and, in those days before there were Tony Awards, earned Ms. Hellman the New York Drama Critics Award for best American play of the season. Given all this, productions of Watch on the Rhine are surprisingly rare, with only one Broadway revival which had a brief 1980 run. In fact, the current production is the first mounting of any of the works of Lillian Hellman by the Guthrie. In Hellman's later career, she wrote a trio of memoirs with candid descriptions of the political minefields she navigated as an outspoken public person unwilling to compromise her morals. She witnessed both intense idealism and brutality, and this play dramatizes both. In her title, Hellman seems to suggest it is not enough to see only that which is close at hand, which may offer comfort or relief, but to be vigilant to the events in the conflict zones, lest they come home to roost. This is a praiseworthy production of a potent and pertinent play.

Watch on the Rhine continues through November 5, 2017, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets: $29.00 - $79.00. Senior (age 65+), student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats may be available 30 minutes before performance, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For ticket information call 612-377-2224 or go to

Playwright: Lillian Hellman; Director: Lisa Peterson; Scenic Design: Neil Patel; Costume Design: Raquel Barreto; Lighting Design: Alexander V. Nichols; Sound Design/Composer: Paul James Prendergast; Vocal Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Stage Managers: Samuel-Moses Jones and Mamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Manager: Jane. E. Heer; Assistant Director: Bonnie Gabel.

Cast: Sarah Agnew (Sara Muller), Elijah Alexander (Kurt Muller), Carley Clover* (Babette Muller), James Detmar (Joseph), Kate Guentzel (Marthe), Hugh Kennedy (David Farrelly), Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (Anise), Caitlin O'Connell (Fanny Farrelly), Kate Regan* (Babette Muller), Silas Sellnow (Joshua Muller), Jonathan Walker (Teck De Brancovis), Hal Weilandgruber* (Bodo Muller), Huxley Westemeier* (Bodo Muller).