Memory serves where structure fails 'Guilty'

November 11, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Basing a play on a book of journalistic interviews doesn't sound like the most dramatic idea. This proves to be the case with Ari Roth's formulaic "Born Guilty," at the Spotlighters Theatre.

However, the subject of the play -- adapted from Peter Sichrovsky's book of the same title -- is eerily fascinating, and in most cases, is hauntingly realized by director Mark Squirek and his cast.

Sichrovsky's interviewees were the children of Nazis, and the play paints memorable portraits of these seemingly innocent offspring, as well as raising a host of difficult questions: Where does responsibility end? Is hatred hereditary, or can it be washed away by the succeeding generation? Is it better to summon up the crimes of the past, or to wipe the slate clean and start fresh?

A tweedy looking Dennis Bader imbues the journalist, an Austrian Jew named Peter, with gentle persistence. Peter is the thread that ties the scenes together, but his repeated announcements of chapter numbers only reinforce the episodic nature of the script. And, when his reactions to his interviews turn to self-doubt, the play threatens to become less about Nazi progeny and more about him, a less interesting subject.

Peter's personal bias surfaces early. He assigns most of his interviewees labels -- an unusual practice for a journalist ostensibly trying to get away from the sort of prejudice represented by grouping people into "types."

One of his more complicated interviewees is Rudolf, a homosexual whom Peter labels "the guilt ridden." Raised in South America, the angry son of an officer in hiding, Rudolf could easily be dismissed as crazed, but as played by Rodney Bonds, he is bright, elegant and tormented -- a man whose loathing for his late father has turned into self-loathing.

As the play progresses, Peter becomes involved with a family, and "Born Guilty" inches away from being a documentary account and into the realm of theater. The father, played by Jonathan Claiborne as an apparently kindly 91-year-old nursing home resident, is visited daily by his dutiful daughter, Susanne. Melissa Meyd gives subtle shadings to Susanne, whose filial devotion is undermined when her teen-age son -- earnestly played by Jeffrey Siperly -- uncovers ugly truths about his grandfather in the course of researching a school project.

Still, "Born Guilty" remains largely structurally disjointed. In an effort to counteract this, director Squirek does his best to keep the action flowing. And, though they are uniformly clad in jeans and black turtlenecks, to which only a few identifying items are added -- a jacket, a pair of glasses, a robe -- the actors have no trouble differentiating among the multiple characters they play.

In the end, Peter asks one last question: "Are we finally free to forget?" Flawed though it is, this play -- staged to commemorate this 50th anniversary year of the liberation of the concentration camps -- is itself the best argument that if there is to be any hope of progress, we must never forget.

'Born Guilty'

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 26

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 752-1225

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