Watch on the Rhine: a resonant political thriller

The Guthrie Theater, through November 5

Caitlin O’Connell (Fanny Farrelly), Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (Anise), Elijah Alexander (Kurt Muller), Sarah Agnew (Sara Agnew) and Huxley Westemeier (Bodo Muller) in the Guthrie Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s co-production of Watch on the Rhine. Photo by Dan Norman.

In the perpetual struggle for freedom and human rights, there are heroes, villains, bystanders, and opportunists. Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, now at the Guthrie’s proscenium stage through November 5th, examines the complex webs of interaction between these groups in 1940 Washington, D.C.—far away from Hitler’s Nazi party and the parallel German resistance, but nevertheless inseparable from these dangers.

Wealthy, straight-talking Fanny Farrelly anxiously awaits the arrival of her daughter Sara after a twenty-year absence following her marriage to German national Kurt Muller. Fanny also reluctantly hosts family friend Marthe and her husband Teck de Brancovis, a now-destitute Romanian count, who appear to have overstayed their welcome.

Sara and Kurt arrive with their three strong-willed, but loyal children, whose humble attire contrasts with Fanny’s beautiful, stately manor. When small talk leads to Kurt and Sara hinting at Kurt’s role in anti-fascist work, their secrecy piques the interests of others, particularly de Brancovis, who cannot resist snooping immediately. Thus, the stage is set for a parlor-room political thriller.

And what a stage! The production as a whole is expertly designed, with Neil Patel’s lush, realistic interior set and Raquel Barreto’s rich, illustrative costumes. Paul James Predergast’s original score and sound design heightens tension without being forceful, and Alexander V. Nichol’s lighting design adds depth and underscores emotion. This is all brought together under Lisa Peterson’s clean, deliberate direction. (Of note, this is a co-funded production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where Peterson is the current Associate Director. The show’s set and cast will be moving part and parcel from Minneapolis to her home theatre for another set of dates following this run’s closing.)

Watch on the Rhine does suffer from a somewhat uneven, exposition-heavy first act that swings from gossip-driven melodrama to tense confrontation. However, this occasionally digressive opening gives way to the sharp, focused action of the later acts, where political intrigue probes difficult questions of duty and privilege.

The momentum of the latter half of the show allows Peterson to guide her largely strong cast to find consistent rhythms amidst distinct character types. Caitlin O’Connell provides astute comic timing and intelligence that is simultaneously warm and tentative as Fanny. Jonathan Walker is suitably slimy as de Brancovis, Sarah Agnew gracefully captures the determined maternal instincts and passionate marital support of Sara, Hugh Kennedy nicely shapes his performance as Sara’s brother around the evolution of his character, and the cast of kids steal hearts with their manicured obedience. Despite these strong performances, it is unfortunate that many of the accents prove inconsistent.

Elijah Alexander rises above the rest as Kurt. He provides a deeply moving and engrossing portrait of internal conflict, paternal care, human compassion, and political determination. His simultaneously subtle and powerful performance will stick with you long after the curtain drops—it is pitch-perfect from beginning to end. His work anchors the action as it races toward an astounding climax that creates thoughtful, emotional resonance.

By injecting political drama into its urbane setting, Watch on the Rhine asks important, timely questions about involvement in foreign affairs, the moral responsibilities of wealth, the weight of sacrifice in resistance, and the importance of family. And despite its uneven first act, the Guthrie’s production of Hellman’s play proves to be a complex and worthwhile look at a world in turmoil that is sadly as relevant today as the year it premiered.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies at the site Movie Matrimony.

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