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Theater Wed Oct 08 2014

Watch on the Rhine: Tense Preview of World War II at The Artistic Home

Watch on the Rhine
Photo by Tim Wright.

It's an idyllic late spring day in 1940 at the country home of the wealthy Farrelly family near Washington DC. The Farrellys are awaiting the arrival from Europe of their daughter, husband and children; they have not seen her in 20 years. It's a family reunion, but it turns into a preview of World War II.

Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, first produced in April 1941, was a warning to Americans about the growth of fascism in Europe and its potential in our own country. The compelling pre-war conflict is dramatized in The Artistic Home's new production, directed by Cody Estle.

Waiting nervously to welcome them is Fanny Farrelly, the opinionated matriarch, played with withering wit and charm by Kathy Scambiaterra. The longtime housekeeper Anise (Lorraine Freund) tries to keep her calm, as does her son David (John Stokvis). The family has two long-time guests, the Count Teck de Brancovis (Joshua J. Volkers) and Countess Marthe de Brancovis (Tiffany Bedwell), who clearly have overstayed their welcome.

Daughter Sara Muller (Kristin Collins) arrives with her husband, Kurt (Scot West), and three children. The eldest, Joshua (Declan Collins) is named for his late grandfather; his siblings are Babette (Elodie Tougne) and Bodo (Liam Dahlborn). The family greets them warmly, and the children are clearly happy to have arrived at such a lovely family refuge.

But tensions arise almost immediately. It soon is clear that the reason for the family's many moves across Europe was Kurt's anti-fascist activities. The count, who plays poker at the German embassy, supports the fascist regime in Germany. The political conflict is exacerbated by a romance between Marthe and David. The conflict between Kurt and Teck builds and Marthe and Teck's marriage unravels over the course of the play. The tension comes to a dramatic and explosive conclusion in act three.

This production is marked by strong acting, as we have come to expect from the Artistic Home crew. West is riveting as Kurt, the anti-fascist fighter. Volkers as the Romanian count is menacing from his first appearance. Scambiatterra excels as Fanny. The three children are all poised and articulate performers but Dahlborn as the linguistically precocious Bodo, the youngest Muller, shines in his role. Collins, Freund and Bedwell also give fine performances; there is not a wrong note among the cast.

Jeff Kmiec's scenic design makes good use of the small Artistic Home performance space. The central area is an elegant sitting room with cream-colored furnishings and dark walls. The stage area is spacious enough to accommodate a seating area, small dining table, piano, and desk. Lauren Roark's costuming is picture perfect, especially the women's 1940s gowns. Garvin Jellison's lighting design, however, seemed too bright overall, especially beyond the performing area. Although the bright lighting facilitated my notetaking, it would have enhanced the drama to concentrate the lighting on the performers, not the audience.

I have a suggestion for the theater company for any play with so much historical content. The audience would have benefited by reminders of some of the backstory to Watch on the Rhine. The key events in Germany from 1918 through 1933 led to the rise of the Nazi party. And I suspect most of the audience did not have any idea why Kurt spent time in Spain -- that he was fighting to save the democratically elected Republican government. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, for which 2,800 Americans volunteered, set the stage for the larger war and, in fact, for the Cold War that lasted for decades. "We did not win," Kurt says. "The world would have been a different place if we had."

An historical timeline in the playbill and some lobby displays could have put the whole story in context for the audience.

Watch on the Rhine won the New York Drama Critics Circle award in 1941 and ran for 378 performances. Dashiell Hammett, Hellman's lover for 30 years, wrote the script for a 1943 film version. The play's title is drawn from a traditional German patriotic anthem that first became popular in the 1840s.

Watch on the Rhine, running 2.5 hours including two intermissions, will be staged through Nov. 16 at the Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at varying times. Tickets for $28-$32 can be bought online or by calling 312-243-3963.

 
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Daniel / October 8, 2014 6:46 PM

First, I've seen and love this play!!! I couldn't agree with you more in paragraph 8 of this review. An uninformed audience (especially younger folks)on the history of the times need "reminders of some of the backstory of Watch on the Rhine." That said, Multi-Media can certainly help to facilitate this. As The Artistic Home did last season with Jeff nominated "The Goddess". In fact the film "Casablanca" begins by giving the viewer some historical backdrop driving home the Fascist Nazi threat. I had family here and in Germany fighting in World War 2 and I went to St Augustine Parish in Chicago where parishoners were arrested and placed in U.S.A German internment camps. Just like the Japanese and Italians during WW 2. This history and more enhances my enjoyment of "Watch on the Rhine". Go see it!! I will, again.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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