`Rhine' still pulls at our emotions

Review: Hellman's play, artfully done at Everyman, takes us into Fanny's world, whether we want to be there or not.

September 08, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"I have not often in my life felt what I feel now," the outraged and sickened matriarch, Fanny, says in the third act of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine. When a stunned Tana Hicken speaks these words in Everyman Theatre's stirring production, you not only understand what she means, you feel it, too.

A pall has descended on Fanny's comfortable suburban Washington home. The year is 1940 and suddenly, World War II has burst through the elegant front doors. The well-to-do widow of an ambassador, Hicken's Fanny is the type of refined, self-assured grande dame whose chief vice is an occasional outburst of rudeness. She gets away with this by shrouding her behavior in a cloak of graciousness.

But don't let her gentility fool you. Fanny Farrelly is a woman who gets what she wants, and Hicken has captured Fanny's imperious manner, from her uplifted chin to her brisk footsteps. Accustomed to being in control, Fanny believes she knows how the world works, but that belief is severely challenged when a blackmailer starts trafficking in human lives in her drawing room.

When Watch on the Rhine begins, the household Fanny presides over consists of her bachelor son, a Washington lawyer; a Romanian count and countess (houseguests who have begun to wear out their welcome); and the requisite servants. But this is no ordinary day at the Farrelly residence. After an absence of 20 years, Fanny's daughter, Sara, is returning home with her German, anti-Nazi husband, Kurt, and their three children.

Fanny, who disapproved of Sara's marriage, is nervous this morning, and her nervousness permeates the household, opening the play with a dash of humor. Director Donald Hicken (Tana's husband) deftly handles this humor - an important contrast for the terror that comes later - and he capitalizes on the infectious nature of Fanny's moods.

His staging invites us into Fanny's world and lets us share the sense of well-being, the seemingly impenetrable safety and solidity that are as much a part of her home as its bricks and mortar and rich appointments. (The beautifully detailed set is by Tom Donahue, with props by Jennifer Stearns.)

Director Hicken understands that, like Fanny, the more we feel at ease in this tony environment, the more shocking it will be when that environment is breached. And make no mistake about it - Hellman, who rarely could resist an opportunity to moralize, wanted to leave audiences at least as unsettled and shaken as the presumably implacable Fanny.

As is true of many of Hellman's plays, there's more than a hint of melodrama in Watch on the Rhine. In lesser hands that melodrama can deflect the play's eventual punch. And some of Everyman's cast members - Allyson Currin as the American-born countess and even, occasionally, Deborah Hazlett in an otherwise admirable and heartfelt portrayal of Sara - let the melodrama overtake them.

This is a play whose villain (Kyle Prue's ruthlessly opportunistic count) and hero (Bruce Nelson's soft-spoken, but diehard anti-Fascist, Kurt) are sharply and incontrovertibly delineated. But Prue and Nelson find the shadings necessary to infuse them with humanity.

Nelson's depiction of Kurt is particularly poignant. Gentle, tweedy and almost professorial, he is above all a family man - but his nuclear family is a microcosm for the wider family of man he is fighting to free from oppression.

We appreciate this broader passion all the more when we see how he relates to his wife and children. At one point, when he and Sara embrace, the intimacy embarrasses the other characters on stage, and as is true of all of this production's best and most deeply felt moments, it has the same effect on the audience.

The extent of Kurt's sacrifice is enhanced by the fine portrayals of his children by Christopher Wicks, Sophie Hinderberger and especially 13-year-old Elias Mays Schutzman as the precocious baby of the family.

Watch on the Rhine (which played a pre-Broadway engagement at the Baltimore's former Ford's Theatre in 1941), opened on Broadway eight months before the United States entered the second World War. Hellman was blatantly trying to rouse audiences to take a stand against the wave of Fascism that was engulfing Europe.

Today's audiences know the full horror of the events that followed, and that knowledge renders the play's message all the more frightening. Hellman may have turned this play into a soapbox at times, but at Everyman, it's a soapbox with the power to move an audience to tears.

Watch on the Rhine

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays. Through Sept. 30

Tickets: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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