Directed by John Vreeke
Born Guilty As smashingly directed by John Vreeke, Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth's Born Guilty is hungry, rigorous, startling theater, an animal energy held within crisp precision. The play relates the story of a fictionalized Peter Sichrovsky, the Viennese author who in 1985 published Strangers in Their Own Land, a best-selling nonfiction account of the alienation of young German and Austrian Jews. He followed that with Born Guilty, a book based on wrenching interviews with the children of Nazis, each uniquely warped by his or her experiences. In the mid’90s, Sichrovsky shocked everyone by becoming one of the leading figures in Austria's ultra-right-wing Freedom Party. Roth's whip-smart cast members become 30 characters during the evening--parents, police, angry crowds, Sunday strollers, even gravestones. Each has brief, spectacular turns that explode like fireworks and burn in the memory well after the spotlight has swung elsewhere, but Rick Foucheux slips into the character of Peter as if he were born to it. Setting out as an Armani-clad avenger swelling with righteousness, Nazi-story hunter Peter loses his way bit by bit, his world narrowing to a pinhole of obsessiveness; soon he goes over the line, seeking others' pain instead of truth. As his project consumes him, Peter emerges more human than hero, and Foucheux ranges through his many moods with a rare command. The second act is less successful, concentrating on a family in which son Dieter has discovered that his family's house was taken from Jews during the war and purchased by his grandfather for a pittance. But in one of the play's final images, Peter reluctantly pushes this sick old man's wheelchair in a circle so he can...sleep. "When the last Nazi dies," Peter says, "will anyone remember, or are we finally free to forget?" It's an exquisite image: a man caring for his enemy because he doesn't trust memory alone to sustain his grievance. (RL) District of Columbia Jewish Community Center Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW.
Copyright © 2002 Washington Free Weekly Inc.
Monster In the Mirror
'Born Guilty' Confronts Nazi Past
By William Triplett
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 30, 2002
The young German woman turns to the audience and with a sad, worried sincerity asks, "What should a child of murderers look like?" Like others whose parents were Nazis, she is trying to come to terms with probably the most poisonous family history of the 20th century, and in "Born Guilty," which just opened in a haunting production at Theater J, those terms range from the hopeful to the sickening.
The play is based on a 1988 oral history by Peter Sichrovsky, an Austrian journalist and Jew born in postwar Vienna who, after growing up and playing with children of former Nazis, decided to start asking them what their daddies had done during the war and simply tape-record their answers. "Born Guilty" was published to international acclaim for its insightful portraits of deeply complex and conflicted people, whose damaged psychology, previously ignored, was both frightening and telling.
Ari Roth's adaptation is, on the surface, an uneasy fit with the book, which was essentially a series of extended monologues from people Sichrovsky interviewed. In the play Sichrovsky is a character -- the protagonist, in fact: We follow the journalist as he almost pathologically pursues these interviews, and we witness the effect they have on him. Inevitably, though, Sichrovsky is less interesting than the people he talks to.
Their struggles with their grotesque inheritance are often wrenchingly powerful, and it's here that Roth is most impressive, transforming many passages of monologue into evocative scenes that a beautifully cast and uniformly strong ensemble, playing multiple roles, acts out. At some point every actor leaves an indelible impression: Julie-Ann Elliot, for instance, as the young woman -- a wraith, really -- who poignantly wants to know whether she looks like the child of murderers. And Jennifer Mendenhall as the daughter of an SS officer, now a woman who can feel compassion for other people only when she is dreaming.
Jim Jorgensen movingly portrays a homosexual whose parents regret that he can't be forced to wear a pink triangle now. Christopher Lane is affecting as a troubled teen who believes he must atone for his grandfather's war crimes, while Michelle Shupe startles you as an arrogant teenage girl who rejects all notions of inherited guilt. And even though his character is really just a device, the wonderful Rick Foucheux delineates Sichrovsky as an obsessive who wishes he weren't so obsessed. Meanwhile, Michael Russotto and Irving Jacobs make some of the most hardened Nazi sympathizers seem sympathetic.
John Vreeke directs the evening with great sensitivity and theatrical flair. No one point of view -- either of children condemning or excusing their parents, or being willfully ignorant about them -- is given more weight than another. Lies and truths alternately surface in an expressionistically played memory or a realistically argued scene, and both Vreeke and Roth allow for some ironic, if bleak, humor at the right moments. Dan Conway's starkly imposing gray set and Mark Anduss's soft, melancholy sound design contribute to an overwhelming feeling of being trapped by history.
Like the book, the play makes it graphically clear that children and grandchildren of Nazis have been both victims of and apologists for the unforgivable sins of their forebears. The human implications of that paradox -- still the roadblock to any resolution on the debate about inherited guilt -- are captured breathtakingly near the end of the play. A woman Sichrovsky has interviewed and come to admire and respect asks him to push her father, a dying and unrepentant former Nazi, around for a stroll in his wheelchair. For her sake, can he offer some comfort to a now-pathetic old man? Whatever else he is, he remains her father, who loved her dearly.
That's ultimately what gives "Born Guilty" its disturbing power: Through the relationship between parent and child, you see something truly scary, the human qualities of people we've long viewed as monsters. In "The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.," a fictional account of Hitler discovered living in South America and put on trial, author George Steiner has the father of the Third Reich lashing out at his accusers, "You have exaggerated grossly, hysterically . . . made of me some kind of mad devil, the quintessence of evil, hell embodied, when I was in truth only a man of my time. Average, if you will. Had I been the singular demon of your rhetorical fantasies, how then could millions of ordinary men and women have found in me the mirrors, the plain mirror of their needs and appetites?"
What do the children of murderers look like? They look like us.Born Guilty, by Ari Roth. Based on the book by Peter Sichrovsky. Directed by John Vreeke. Lighting, Dan Conway; costumes, Susan Chiang. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. In rep through July 14 at Theater J