Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Watch on the Rhine
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's review of Shakespeare in Love

(back) Sarah Agnew and Silas Sellnow;
(front) Jonah Horowitz, Emma Curtin, and
Elijah Alexander

Photo by Kevin Berne
In Lillian Hellman's 1941 play Watch on the Rhine, now playing in Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, the wealthy Farrellys play host to two families in need of refuge. First there are the De Brancovises: Teck, the Romanian Count De Brancovis, and his wife Marthe. Marthe is the American daughter of a friend of Fanny Farrelly, matriarch of the family. Later we will learn her mother, who wanted her daughter to be a countess, coerced her into the marriage. The other guests, who will arrive in scene two, include Sara, the Farrellys' younger daughter who married a German engineer and has not seen her mother or brother for two decades, and her husband and children. (Though why the wealthy Fanny never crossed the Atlantic to see her beloved daughter and three subsequent grandchildren is a mystery Hellman doesn't address.)

Though the house is clearly capacious enough (the set, by Neil Patel, is magnificent) to accommodate both families, it is far too small to contain their vastly different political philosophies. Imagine Steve Bannon and Michael Moore trapped in a sauna and you'll have an idea of the level of simmering tension.

Fortunately, Hellman is too skilled a writer to bring the action to a boil too quickly. First we will meet the De Brancovises and get a large whiff of the sexual tension that exists between Marthe (Kate Guentzel) and Fanny's bachelor son David (Hugh Kennedy)—and also catch the (at first) faint odor of fascism that oozes off the Count (Jonathan Walker). But before that stink overwhelms the proceedings, we are treated to the emotional homecoming of Sara (Sarah Agnew), her husband Kurt (Elijah Alexander), and their three precocious children, Joshua (Silas Sellnow), Babette (Emma Curtin), and Bodo (Jonah Horowitz).

As Hellman moves her plot forward with grace and humor, we dive ever deeper into the lives of these characters. The Count and Countess are clearly unhappy. She practically throws herself at David—and he's happy to make the catch. The Count reveals his cunning and treachery by breaking into a locked satchel carried by Kurt Muller, who we learn has left engineering behind to fight the rise of Hitler. "I am an anti-fascist," he says. "And that does not pay well." That and the fact that Kurt is on a list of Nazi enemies have incited the family's decampment to his wife's ancestral home. There is a moment when David tells Kurt, "You're a political refugee. We don't turn back people like you. People who are in danger," and a small frisson seemed to spread through the audience as we perhaps considered our own country's current treatment of refugees on the day the Supreme Court let stand President Trump's travel ban.

Despite the bubbling political tension between the two families, there's the much less portentous anxiety between Fanny and her servants (maid Anise, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and James Detmar's butler Joseph), the delightful energy of the three Muller children (all terrific, but Jonah Horowitz's portrayal of the idealistic young Bodo is particularly charming), and Fanny's crusty and imperious nature. All combine to bring some lightness and humor to what is, at its heart, a very dark and disturbing tale.

This is a bit of an old-fashioned play, presented in three acts with two intermissions. (Though the second break is merely a brief opportunity to stand and stretch one's legs.) But its emphasis on fascism and the duty of good people to fight it has rarely been timelier. This production is so compelling, so brisk in its pace, so beautifully performed and elegantly staged that it deserves your attention even if its underlying message wasn't so vitally important.

The cast is uniformly wonderful, but Caitlin O'Connell's performance as matriarch Fanny is so suffused with the dueling nature of the character created by Hellman—she is privileged, bossy and judgmental, yet also affectionate, patient and fiercely protective of her family—that it's easy to forget she is only Fanny for two hours and 45 minutes each performance. So adept is O'Connell in the creation of her character that I half expected her to step down from the stage and comfort the man sobbing in the front row during the last moments of the play.

Special attention must also be drawn to the set created by Neil Patel and the clearly talented crew in Berkeley Rep's stage shop. The set simply reeks of old money with its understated opulence. Muted tones of deep bluish grey and chocolate brown create a calm environment against which the emotional fireworks can glisten. With its large staircase at stage right, luxurious furniture, landscapes and seascapes on the walls, Bösendorfer square grand piano, and Oriental rugs, we are never less than convinced that we are peeking into the living room of a fine estate near Washington, DC. The costumes by Raquel Barreto are likewise perfect—as is pretty much every element of this production.

Watch on the Rhine runs through January 14, 2017, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $23.50-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.