Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Way to Heaven
In Juan Mayorga's bizarre fictionalized account, a German commandant struggles (with the precision of Seurat's own pointillism) to paint an idyllic, living picture of Jewish deportation in World War II: arranging the interred, adding nuance, and striving desperately to force loveliness on a lie. The results, though not entirely redemptive, are undeniably eerie and spellbinding.
I take a lot of notes during a show, and sometimes I miss things. So, when I looked up from my scribbling on opening night, I was stunned to see children, singly or alone, and young people, already drifting silently to natural, pastoral poses on stage (in spite of the yellow "Jude" stars stitched onto their coats)not unlike the subjects assembling on the shore in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Here, the captive Jewish children fall into a seemingly casual scene, along the banks of a small stream.
In Way to Heaven, the characters come from all over Europe, plucked from the trains that passed in the night, to play parts in a Potemkin village: a pretense of harmless relocation, to placate any foreign investigators. Two boys play with a spinning top, a little girl teaches her doll to swim in a gentle stream, and two teenaged lovers occupy a park bench. They repeat the same scenes over and over, fumbling for precision, chafing under a growing, unknown terror, and terribly out of place in their own "charming" poses. Fans of TV's "The Prisoner," or anybody who has endured the burden of ongoing, harsh authoritarianism, will find their desperation strangely thrilling.
We are introduced to the entire fiction by a visiting Red Cross investigator, played by Jerry Vogel. In a smoothly delivered eight or ten page monolog, tinged with survivor's guilt, he lays out the entire problem: introducing each "character" in the internment camp, and grappling with the vague impression that he was not quite seeing what was right there in front of him. But the truth, at the time, was hidden even by its own victims, making him strangely powerless to intercede.
He disappears, a hideous whistle stops the scene, and then starts it again, calling a prison work yard to mind. The kids dutifully repeat their routines in this little paradise: an older boy doing his best to try to appear to control his younger friend; the little girl seeming more and more lifeless, teaching her doll to swim; and the young lovers, who are old enough to have figured things out, beginning to show real signs of panic.
Terry Meddows is outstanding as the Jewish "mayor" of the camp, utterly silent for nearly half the play, despite an encyclopedic distance in his eyes; but later daring to hope the gentleman from the Red Cross might still see their plight, if only through a puzzling analogy. But the mayor's own wariness makes his message indecipherable. Later, he will eagerly collaborate with the German commandant (Jason Cannon) in finding some kind of humanity in this appallingly elaborate imitation of a home-spun vignette. It's enough to make you question any philosophy that's grown too artful, in spite of nearby ruin or neglect.
The collaborating mayor does manage to save some of the less persuasive "actors" from being sent to the ovens (the penalty for disappointing their German director). You might complain that they are all collaborators in their own gloomy fate, delaying proper recognition of the Holocaust. But they live their strange new life on a balance of crushing fear and a wisp of hope. Meanwhile, Mr. Cannon is wonderfully game as the stage-struck Nazi auteur, trying to wrench Method Acting out of his doomed, uprooted cast, in a secluded setting just north of Berlin. He's dazzling in the second half, tying himself in knots to establish his great exculpatory fiction.
Julie Layton is deeply disturbing as one of the young lovers, and Scott McMaster writhes alongside, desperately trying to keep a lid on her terror. Elizabeth Teeter is touching as the little girl in the stream. In fact, all the young people on stage do a very nice job under the direction of Doug Finlayson. It should probably be noted that the grown-ups are subtle, ingenious, and inspiring, too. The parallel to Sunday in the Park With George persists even to John Stark's ghostly monochromatic woods and village, painted on a scrim upstage: like shafts of darkness, achieving different moods through subtle light cues. A fresh, splendid, and intellectually wrenching way to re-examine a familiar topic.
Way to Heaven. Translated by David Johnston. Through February 12, 2012 (except Fridays), at the Wool Studio Theatre of the JCC, about a block west of Lindbergh Rd. on Scheutz, between Olive St. Rd. and Page Blvd. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org or call (314) 442-3283. Tickets are at the main desk in the center's lobby.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers