Most people have called the man a coward, but Horrigan believes that 95% of us would do the same in that situation.
In Way to Heaven, Jerry Vogel opens the play with a long account of acting as a Red Cross inspector in a “relocation” camp in Germany during World War II. What he sees is a village full of contented Jews going about their everyday affairs. He is guided by the affable, if pretentious Commandant (Jason Cannon) and the town’s “mayor,” Gershom Gottfried (Terry Meddows). Something seems off, but he writes a favorable report anyway. Would 95% of us do the same?
The inspector says, “I was the eyes of the world,” but as the old saying goes: Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes? Yes, I think we would deny that which we do not wish to see because we don’t want to make it real by our validation. The Commandant addresses the issue head-on when he asks the inspector whether he expected to see emaciated prisoners in striped pajamas under heavy guard. The Commandant knows how to put his adversary on the defensive, but of course he does, because he has carefully rehearsed. The inspector notes a deadness in the eyes of those in the village, a sense that they are going through the motions, not the emotions. But he doesn’t do anything about it. The Commandant, with Gottfried standing by, also tells him that they call the ramp to the “infirmary,” himmelveg (way to heaven). Even so, the inspector did not open the door and left with his photos of the model town, ready to write his admiring account of the friendly but humble hamlet complete with its football pitch, theatre, playground and even synagogue.
Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga has structured this elaborate examination of conscience, of art and artifice, history, philosophy and human nature as a five-act play. Mayorga had to be one of the smartest kids in school because he is a dramatist, director, mathematician and philosopher, all of which areas of expertise he brings to the table here. The Commandant is partial to quoting Spinoza on the nature of love (that which is born out of hate is a higher love), not coincidentally, a Jew. He paints himself as a highly cultured man, more “European than German,” in his own description, and this may even be true. He tailors his own reality by creating his model village which serves as a way to disconnect from what he is really doing. On the other hand, he demonstrates a streak of casual cruelty when he puts a terrible decision—a “Gershom’s choice of sorts—in Gottfried’s reluctant hands.
This play is a graduate student’s dream. It not only deconstructs art, it shows us exactly how it’s done as the metaphorical onion is peeled down to nothing but a memory. An actor, the Commandant says, exists in the moment of his play. He uses the example of the actor hammering a nail. He is doing something and nothing at the same time. He lives in the play, but when the curtain falls, what is he to do? He must return to the ugliness of reality, and the Commandant makes it clear that the real world isn’t a place he cares to be right now. The science of semiotics is constantly at work here; however, the philosopher the Commandant pulls in at this point is not linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, but Aristotle from the Poetics on the nature of drama because a play within the play is being generated before our eyes. Once the middleman (the inspector) is out of the picture, we are left as the witnesses. What do we see? What would we believe? What would 95% of us do?
To reinforce this audience engagement, Doug Finlayson, whose direction is impeccable, has Vogel and Cannon’s characters look directly at us rather than existing, as actors usually do, in the middle distance. This technique not only brings us to account, but also makes the distant past our continuous present. As long as we are in that room, we cannot escape the situation, just like the Jews who, as long as they’re playing their parts, are not “on that train,” in the Commandant’s words. Gottfried, however, consciously engages us much less. He works with the Commandant, but he seldom looks him in the eye. He is pleased when he solves a thorny dramatic conundrum during the preparation of the script and we see a slight smile. The Commandant has begun to treat him as a collaborator also, as demonstrated by his casually pouring Gottfried a cup of coffee, rather than asking the other man if he wants one as is his custom.
Besides the use of gaze, signifiers abound in the costumes (Michele Freidman Siler) in which the striking contrast between German and Jew is marked. The set is perfectly conceived by John Stark, who also painted the back wall with canted images of huts, sharply pointed trees, and most significantly, of a clock perpetually stuck on 6. That fact apparently is ignored when Gottfried is required to give a speech about its workings and how it is been in service for 400 years (since 1492). How did the inspector miss that?
The most striking part of the set is the focus on the primacy of the word. The leaves on the stage floor are cut from pages of books and scripts, and stacks of volumes literally support the platform that serves as part of the stage. These touches enhance the fact that there is much more talk than action here, plus they serve as a constant reminder of the Commandant’s hiding behind his own library. Where the inspector is blind, the Commandant protects himself through intellectualizing his experiences. The sound is comprised of bits of music from composers who died in the Holocaust and are pulled together here by Robin Weatherall. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design clearly emphasizes that horror which lies beneath. The show is technically brilliant, thanks to the whole production staff and Technical Director Jerry Russo.
The actors are in their element. Jerry Vogel is a fine storyteller and sets us up for what is to come. Jason Cannon is the very model of a conflicted Commandant who hides the shaking in his tall boots behind bluster and bravado, although it is clear he does believe that Jews are an enigma, and aren’t like “us,” whoever we may be. And it’s not quite February, but I need to send a valentine to Terry Meddows who is heartbreakingly real as Gershom Gottfried, as he is in every part he plays. His unconventional looks are a gift in character parts, and his smallest gestures, right down to that tiny smile or a glint in the eye are mesmerizing. He owns every scene he’s in except one. Cannon pulls focus when he shows his best stuff as the auteur of his own production, to the extent that it’s possible to believe that he has bought into a world created wholly in his imagination with Gottfried as his dramaturg. He continually brings up the need to simplify through Aristotle’s precepts of the knot and music—if they are too intricate and complicated, they will lose their power to command the eye and ear. However, “simplification” in a concentration camp has a whole other meaning from it does down on Walden Pond.
We know what’s going on outside the confines of the “play,” as the town, represented by Julie Layton, Scott McMaster and a group of young people from college-age down to Elizabeth Teeter who could give acting lessons now, and she’s 10. The supporting players are all fine, as well, especially McMaster, who has a nice bit about trying to learn his lines, which, of course change as the “cast” receives notes from the director. Braden Phillips and Parker Donovan command our attention as they play a scene with a spinning top over and over, trying to get comfortable with their “dialogue.” Matthew Howard, Leo Ramsey, Drew Redington, and Shaina Schrooten add poignancy and atmosphere.
The events depicted here are based in fact. There was such a place as this called Theresienstadt, which was rehabbed and used as an example for Red Cross inspectors who validated the veracity of the Nazi claims that they were helping the Jews by making places where they could live simply but comfortably. There is no denying that there are slow parts in Way to Heaven, but I have a sense that if one were to see it again, it might seem even more compelling because the structure would be clear from the beginning. On first look, the intellectual rigor detracts from its emotional punch, or at least it did for me. To borrow from a current popular phrase, am I the 95%? Are you?
Way to Heaven is, indeed, a demanding show that won’t appeal to all, but I think will reward those who want to make the effort to genuinely witness the experience. Thanks to the New Jewish Theatre under the wise hand of Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer for choosing to produce it. I’d certainly welcome the opportunity to see more of this kind of challenging material in which the audience is obviously integral to the process of creation and recreation that we are supposed to be.