The circumstances of World War II and Hitler’s legacy of conquest and persecution plunged many ordinary men and women into a crucible that tested and destroyed lives. Extraordinary events seen through the eyes of an ordinary man lies at the heart of Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg.
A teleplay in the 1950s and a highly regarded film in the early 60s, Mann adapted his material into a stage play in 2001. At American Century Theater, director Joe Banno uses the Broadway script with a ghostly framing device: on the edges of the stage, the specters of two Jewish women and two sharply dressed Nazis observe the courtroom drama in silence. These shadow characters may be a theatrical conceit, but they point out what is at stake during the Nuremberg trials – justice for millions or justification for the horrific actions of a few.
As a courtroom drama illuminating a significant episode in post-war justice, Judgment at Nuremberg is guilty as charged – it is gripping and boasts a compelling cast of actors.
Following the same plot as the film, the play begins with the arrival of Judge Haywood – the stalwart Craig Miller – who is the new presiding judge over the current round of trials at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. He arrives not to pass judgment on Goehring, Goebbels, or Eichmann; the top Nazi officials were the first to be tried. By the time Judge Haywood arrives, several years after the war is over, civil servants and other civilians are the defendants. Instead of SS officers, judges are being prosecuted for their part in Hitler’s machine.
The German judges on trial, Hahn, Lammpe, and Hoffstetter, have all entered pleas of not guilty. The fourth judge , Ernst Janning refuses to speak to the court and does not acknowledge the authority of the tribunal. Michael Replogle plays Janning with a quiet cunning while Kim Curtis as Emil Hahn finds the oily soul of a tainted judge. Victor Gold and Tom Fuller also make an impact in their roles of Lammpe and Hofstetter, respectively.
These men played their own part during the Nazi regime not on the fields of battle but in the courts. Their decisions sent men and women to oblivion, charges the U.S. prosecutor Col. Lawson – an unwavering performance by Bruce Alan Rauscher. Lawson seeks the maximum penalty but has to face the formidable defense counsel, Oscar Rolfe – cannily portrayed by Steve Lebens. Rolfe chips away at the prosecution’s case at nearly every turn, which makes for compelling theatre.
Judge Haywood and the other jurists – played by Tel Monks and Paul J. Klingenberg – must weigh the testimony by an array of witnesses. An aging college professor – a memorable cameo by Ron Sarro – speaks to the character of the defendants and the pressures they faced adapting to the dictatorship.
Frau Wallner – a moving performance by Mary Beth Luckenbaugh – is called to the stand to tetify about a case tried years before in which an elderly Jew was executed for having sexual relations with her, which violated racial defilement law under Hitler. Most disturbing of all – and a chilling performance by Christopher Henley – is the testimony of Rudolph Peterson, a man rendered sterile under the guise of Eugenics due to his mental incapacities.
As Judge Haywood tries to make sense of the evidence in the trial, he also attempts to make connections outside the courtroom, befriending a widowed socialite who gives him insight as to how daily life was marred by the German war machine. Karin Rosnizeck, as Frau Bertholt, embodies the haute couture and wounded soul of a war widow; her scenes with Miller are poignant.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG
Closes June 28, 2014
American Century Theater at
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street Arlington
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $32 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tackling the big issues of conscience, retribution, justice, Mann’s script balances the courtroom procedural with snapshots of life outside the court. Enhancing the production are slides and newsreel footage of Nuremberg before and after the war, maps of key locations throughout Europe, and – last but not least – footage from the concentration camps taken after the Nazis were defeated. Piles of naked, dead bodies, the showers, and barrels of poison – these images add another chilling layer to the production, along with the silent ghosts standing sentinel.
Banno’s strong production is aided by the simple set design and effective projections designed by Patrick Lord. Rip Claasen’s period costumes and stylized uniforms give just the right look to the characters. Lighting and sound design – by Marc Allan Wright and Sean Allan Doyle – provide the subtle atmosphere throughout the performance.
Along with Peterson’s testimony, performed memorably by Henley, two sections of Judgment at Nuremberg lingered with me after I left the theatre. Janning breaks his courtroom silence and speaks about the “fever over the land” during Hitler’s rise to power. Replogle’s delivery of this monologue, where Janning admits guilt while justifying his actions summed up the actions of thousands of middle and lower level men who loved Germany first and thought about what they were doing in its name second.
Finally, and fittingly, the penultimate moment in the play, when Judge Haywood renders his judgment, I was struck by the universality of his statement, “This trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men – even able and extraordinary men – can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination.”
Judgement at Nuremberg by Abby Mann . Directed by Joe Banno . Featuring Bruce Alan Rauscher, Lyle Blake Smythers, Craig Miller, Jorge A. Silva, Tel Monks, Paul J. Klingenberg, Kim Curtis, Tom Fuller, Victor Gold, Michael Replogle, Steve Lebens, Ron Sarro, Ellie Nicoll, Karin Rosnizeck, Christopher Henley, Larry Kolp, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Vanessa Bradchulis, Jay Delehanty, Alan Diaz, Paul Alan Hogan, Colin Martin, Jean J. Miller, Lynley Peoples, Gray West. Projections Research: Shayne Weyker. Set and Projections Design by Patrick Lord . Lighting Designer Marc Allan Wright . Costume Designer Rip Claassen . Stage Manager Lindsey E. Moore. Produced by The American Century Theater . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.
Note: Christopher Henley writes for DC Theatre Scene. That fact did not affect this review.