At the end of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the Judge offers the heroic John Proctor a deal. Confess to witchcraft, he says, and we will spare your life. More than that: you will go free. Proctor, whose life is sweet, agrees, and confesses on the spot to consorting with Satan. But the Judge also insists that Proctor sign a confession, to be posted in the Town Square. Proctor recoils. But why? the Judge asks. You’ve already confessed.
“Because,” Proctor says, “it is my name.”
So it is with the heroic Sophie Scholl (Lexi Lapp), who practices the witchcraft of freedom. She, along with her brother Hans (Lucky Gretzinger) and some friends have formed The White Rose, a movement dedicated to the overthrow of the Nazi Party in Germany. For this – and, more specifically, for distributing a pamphlet – she is being subjective to the ministrations, alternately terrifying and soothing, of Kurt Grunwald (Paul Deboy), a Nazi functionary.
The Scholls were real people; the White Rose was a rare example of organized opposition to Hitler’s depredations within Germany. Grunwald is a fictional character, but playwright David Meyers may have modeled him on the Gestapo interrogator Robert Mohr.
The business of We Will Not Be Silent is Grunwald’s interrogation of Sophie. In an interview with the CATF’s Sharon Anderson, playwright David Meyers describes the interrogation as the conflict between a woman of conscience and a man who puts safety ahead of righteousness, but it is more, and better, than that. Grunwald is a moral relativist who believes that the righteousness behind Sophie’s cause is not different than the sense of righteousness which animates the politics of der Führer. Rather than relying on revealed truth or natural law, Grunwald is comfortable relying on the civil law; the law of the State.
And he raises an important point: Hitler rose with the acquiescence of the German people. All those fantasies about traveling back in time and killing Hitler miss the point; had Hitler been killed, another tyrant – perhaps one even worse, and more effective – would have risen in his stead, because this is what Germany demanded.
So Grunwald comforts himself with the belief that all moral absolutism is flawed – except, he senses, Sophie’s absolutism does not require the killing of Jews, Poles and Russians, or the suppression of Germany’s moral greatness, or chopping off a young woman’s head because she distributed a pamphlet.
We Will Not Be Silent
closes July 30, 2017
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And yet for all his posturing, Grunwald is self-aware enough to recognize that his relativism allows him to keep food in his belly and clothes on his family’s back in Hitler’s Germany. He refuses to see himself as a bad man, although he admits to sharing some of Sophie’s disgust at what their nation has become. It becomes important to him that Sophie acquiesce to the government’s demand that she confess, renounce the White Rose, and embrace the godlike qualities of Hitler and the Master Race. She doesn’t have to mean it – just do it, as he does. In so doing, she could save her own life, and redeem his.
This, like most theater based on interrogation (Inherit the Wind is the prototype), depends on the relationship between the interrogator and his victim. Deboy and Lapp – who play father and daughter in another CATF production – are superb at this. Grunwald can change from sympathy to anger in an instant, and so can Deboy. Lapp, a slender actor who makes herself appear frail here, wears Sophie’s fear, stress and anxiety on her face and in her body. Grunwald is not above enhanced interrogation; he makes Sophie stand unmoving for hours; deprives her of sleep; deprives her of food and water. Sophie bends and twitches; her eyes grow tired and she seems to become pale before our eyes. She looks at any moment like she’s about to fall into tears, or collapse, or die. But she does not break.
Grunwald has more success when he engages Sophie intellectually, and so does the play. Their rapid-fire arguments – Grunwald tries to drown Sophie out, unsuccessfully – are like two heavyweight boxers circling each other, warily, but with murderous intent. When one or the other lands a telling point, you can hear the audience collectively draw its breath.
At one point Sophie is reunited with her brother and co-conspirator, who also urges her to confess, renounce, and live to fight another day. He will go down for his embrace of freedom, but why deprive their parents of two children? Gretzinger here makes Hans loving, sympathetic, sweet, and the most dangerous thing to Sophie’s stubborn integrity.
The only quibble I have with this fine play is that Meyer extends Sophie’s moment of truth a bit too long. He actually gives her two – one when Grunwald first presents her with the confession, and later, when she experiences her own weakness as she faces the reality of the endless no. While this might correspond to historical fact, it is a challenge to the audience. Having once ridden through the valley of doubt with Sophie in this short play, we are not ready for a second ride.
When Sophie finally refuses to sign the confession and oath (I am giving nothing away; her fate is historical fact) Grunwald cries out “But it is just words! Words mean nothing!”
“Words mean everything,” Sophie replies.
John Proctor couldn’t have said it better.
We Will Not Be Silent by David Meyers, directed by Ed Herendeen, assisted by Shaun M. McCracken, who also served as dramaturg . Featuring Paul Deboy, Lexi Lapp, Lucky Gretzinger and Scott Cooper . Set design: Frank J. Oliva . Costume design: Therese Bruck . Lighting design: Tony Galaska . Sound design: Justin Ellington . Technical director: C. J. Glowacki . Stage manager: Lori M. Doyle, assisted by Elizabeth Freyman . Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.