February 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
A dark and sinister wind blew through Washington last night with the opening of Lillian Hellman’s electrifying drama Watch on the Rhine. Hauntingly parallel to our nation’s current fears of a fascist influence in our government, this 1941 revival is set in the drawing room of a powerful Washington society matron whose daughter has married a resistance fighter during Hitler’s reign of terror. Taken alongside the recent mounting of Roe, the play based on Roe v. Wade, reviewed here earlier this month, it proves Artistic Director Molly Smith to be exceptionally prophetic.
Director Jackie Maxwell does a fine job of letting the actors reveal their formidable skills as we are introduced to the Farelly family and their gilded life. At first we meet Fanny Farelly (played by four time Academy Award winning actress, Marsha Mason) hostess to a pair of Balkan royals, Count Teck De Brancovis of Romania (J Anthony Crane), and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne). In her zest to enjoy her nightly cribbage games with the impoverished Count, she allows herself to ignore his involvement with the fascist German government, falling victim to his courtly manners and his elegant charm. It is only when, after a span of forty years, Fanny’s estranged daughter Sara (Lise Bruneau) returns to the fold with her German husband Kurt Müller (Andrew Long) and their three young children that Fanny comes to understand why her daughter has remained absent. As stalwart members of the German resistance, they have been working within the movement to free political prisoners. Unfortunately, Teck recognizes Kurt as the resistance fighter he is and Fanny slowly realizes she must make a stand to protect her family.
Hellman’s drama unfolds with much lighthearted humor, Mason is superb and charming as Fanny whose amusing banter with her longtime housekeeper Anise (Helen Hedman) and butler Joseph (Addison Switzer) set a lively tone commensurate with the wealthy enjoying their privileged lives. Also of note are Sara’s children, especially the precocious Bodo played winningly by Tyler Bowman. While Fanny’s elder son, David (Thomas Keegan), scion to his late father’s law practice, is her support and guide. We soon learn that Marthe and David are having an affair, and that she is eager to leave the abusive and unscrupulous Count who makes plans to blackmail Kurt.
Throughout, this excellent cast held the audience rapt. You could hear a pin drop for most of it – that is up until the explosive remark David makes to Kurt. “You are a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you.” To which the audience spontaneously erupted into thunderous cheers and applause, especially notable given the current political climate against refugees fleeing oppression and imminent danger.
This is the kind of powerful theatre we have come to expect of Arena – relevant, challenging and thought-provoking. Stay tuned for more thrilling theatre when the premiere of the upcoming political drama Intelligence is presented next month.
Through March 5th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.