Directed by Cody Estle
At The Artistic Home, Chicago
The 1941 cautionary tale still carries a warning that applies today
Lillian Hellman’s pre-World War II drama, Watch on the Rhine, starts out as a drawing room comedy of manners that morphs into an international intrigue and mystery about resistance to the Nazi control of Europe. Set in 1940 in an American estate near Washington D.C., we meet the wealthy Farrelly family headed by matriarch Fanny Farrelly (the terrific Kathy Scambiatterra), who appears as a flighty woman who seeks control of all aspects of life in her country estate. She fights with her housekeeper Anise (Lorraine Freund) and her butler Joseph (Brandon Boler) in a mutual love-hate relationship. Her son, David (John Stokvis) is an unmarried lawyer who Fanny sees as just like her late husband Jushua.
Fanny is nervous because her estranged daughter Sara is returning from a twenty year absence in Europe with her husband and three children. Fanny also is stuck with Martha (Tiffany Bedwell) and Teck (Joshua J. Volkers) de Brancpvis an impoverished Romanian count “with good manners and odious character” who has been conspiring with the Germans while living in Washington. Martha is an American who hates her husband as she covets David. Tech is a Romanian amoral survivor.
The early comedy of manners quickly shifts tone as Sara Muller (Kristian Collins) and her husband Kurt Muller (Scot West) arrive from Europe with their three children: Joshua (Declan Collins), Bodo (Liam Dahlborn) and Babette (Elodie Tougne). We learn that the Muller’s have lived in poverty as Kurt works abound Europe as an anti-fascist. He served in a German unit of the pro-Communists forces opposed to Fascist dictator Franco.
Fanny easily welcomes Sara back into the family as she and David quickly admire Kurt’s passionate beliefs. The intrigue gets hot when Teck searches Kurt’s room and finds a stash of cash Kurt will use to fight the Nazis. The Mullers learn that Max Freidech, a member of the resistance, has been arrested in Germany. Because Freidech once rescued Kurt from the Gestapo, Kurt plans to return to Germany to assist Max and those arrested with him.
Teck tries to blackmail Kurt for $10,000 but Kurt resists his actions. We see how Fanny and David come to grips with being involved with International affairs in their home. I’ll not reveal more but Hellman ‘s forces all to question their complacency in the face of world events, even when those atrocities are happening an ocean away.
The Artistic Home’s production is well acted and nicely staged (scenic design by Jeff Kmiec). Kathy Scambiattera was fabulous as the wacky Fanny. Scot West was strong as the idealistic anti-fascist Kurt. My only problem with this production lies with the use of accents. Lorraine Freund’s French accent was too thick and since she also spoke too fast, she became difficult to understand. And Joshua J. Volkers’ Romanian accent was so accurate that with his tendancy to speak much too fast, he too was difficult to understand. At the first intermission, several patrons audibly stated they couldn’t understand the maid or the Romanian. I blame the dialect coach for not slowing down and getting the actors to enunciate better of they are going to use a thick accent. Scot West used a German accent but we could understand his every word.
But, this production of Watch on the Rhine is worthy of being seen as the theme and the acting carried the production.
At The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand, Chicago, IL, call 312-243-3963, www.theartistichome.org tickets $28 – $32, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with 2 intermissions, through November 16, 2014