A compelling story and witty script, a faultless. pitch-perfect cast under the savvy direction of Adam Immerwahr, and its excellent design make Theater J’s production of Sheltered a must-see before it closes in early February.
In only its second professional production, Sheltered by up-and-coming playwright Alix Sobler is a cogent choice for Theater J, its political and societal connections reverberating long after the curtain comes down. I was also struck with how – dare I say it? – old fashioned this play was. It is almost refreshing in the simplicity of its two-act structure made up of two long scenes. As a frequent theatergoer, I often see productions that use bold strokes, overarching director’s concepts, or language and subject matter that deserve content warnings. Sheltered occupies not only a different time in our collective history – the time just before World War II exploded – but evokes that era through conversation, tight relationships, and intelligent dialogue about topics large and small. Sobler is not only a Jewish-American playwright to watch, but an exciting new voice in the theatre.
Sheltered closes February 2, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
To the play itself. We meet Dr. and Mrs. Kirsch, an affable and affluent couple preparing to host a dinner for the Bloom’s whom they have not seen in years. The real purpose for the invitation lies at the center of the play, presented in the manner of a suspense thriller, methodically peeled away until the big reveal. The Kirsch’s want to help in the plight of European Jews, specifically as sponsors of children they wish to place with American families willing to take them in. Their humanitarian mission is altruistic and complex, and the husband and wife tread lightly as they work the subject into their pre-dinner conversation. Once the true nature of their plan is out in the open, it sounds like a daunting task, knowing that the Nazis already occupy Austria and Hitler’s rise has begun: they wish to travel to Vienna and return to America with 40 Jewish children. They have 39 homes lined up.
It should be noted that both the Hirsh’s and the Bloom’s are assimilated second-generation Jews, who have shed most of the external ethnicity that would have been apparent in their parents or older relatives. Their Jewish identities become fodder as the families talk, especially when Mr. Bloom is revealed to hide his background more than the others – born Moishe Blumenthal, he is now Martin Bloom. Mrs. Bloom, a pampered housewife, later reveals even more family secrets that ultimately loom large.
The question of assisting the young refugees is made even more complex when the subject of American isolationism rears its ugly head, courtesy of Mr. Bloom. He even utters the line “America first,” which echoes throughout the theatre, as do other well-placed and thought-provoking lines that landed differently in 1939 and than now.
Once Leonard and Evelyn move on to Vienna in the second act, we see the couple struggling to make their final selections for the 40 children they are able to save and an Austrian mother who appears to plead with them to take another child in her son’s place. As Dr. and Mrs. Kirsch discover, saving a handful of lives involves sacrifices they cannot imagine.
The two-act drama is superbly paced by director Immerwehr, who keeps the movement and staging as natural as possible, helping the finely tuned actors live vividly in the richly appointed apartment setting (act one) and Vienna hotel room (act two) designed with an eye on detail by Paige Hathaway.
And the cast! Each member of the acting company is nonpareil. David Schlumpf is the picture of patience, reserve, and intelligence as Leonard Hirsch. As his big-hearted and sensitive spouse Evelyn, Erin Weaver turns in a wide-ranging performance that is the heart and soul of the play. Ranging from elegant and playful, to concerned, to passionate, Weaver effortlessly serves the play as the central character, all while looking like a dark-haired Carol Lombard in both an emerald green cocktail dress, flowing housecoat, or smart suit. And I don’t just mean wearing clothing – Weaver captures the 1939 sophistication so precisely, she seems timeless and perfectly at home. Portraying the small but pivotal role of Frau Mueller, the Austrian mother, McLean Fletcher makes a strong impression with a very authentic sounding Viennese accent.
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Alexander Strain brings both humor and an edgier quality to his portrayal of Martin Bloom, the accountant and family man with dark secrets. And as his long-suffering wife, Kimberly Gilbert turns in another vivid performance that allows her prodigious talents to shine. As Roberta Bloom, Gilbert is able to play comic moments and tragic ones with equal aplomb. Making side-long glances to her husband, underhanded comments to Evelyn, or opening her heart up about the true nature of her relationship with Martin, Gilbert’s Roberta is a master class in acting.
The actors are aided in their highly refined performances by the impeccable period attire by costume designer Kelsey Hunt. The cocktail dresses for the ladies in the dinner party scene – Weaver in green, Gilbert in a paisley print- and the tailored suits for the men would be right at home on Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant. Gilding the proverbial lilies, Greg Bazemore’s phenomenal wig creations for Weaver and Gilbert are to die for.
Such detailed direction and design work, along with the gripping performances, all serve to present Sobler’s play with finesse.
As the playwright herself stated about Sheltered: “This play, about refugees, American isolationism, and the great sacrifices parents will make to save their children, is near and dear to my heart.” I keep thinking back on the curtain line of the play, uttered by Weaver as Evelyn to Leonard as rain falls just outside their hotel room in Vienna. As the American couple gazes out the window, on the evening before they meet the families at the railway station to collect the 40 children for their journey to the United States, Evelyn says quietly, “We will have to wait it out, once the storm passes.”
I feel that line and the story of Evelyn and Leonard Kirsch will occupy a place in the hearts and minds of those who see Sheltered for a long, long time.
Sheltered by Alix Sobler . Director: Adam Immerwahr . Featuring: McLean Fletcher, Kimberly Gilbert, David Schlumpf, Alexander Strain and Erin Weaver. Scenic Design: Paige Hathaway . Costume Design: Kelsey Hunt . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Props Design: Tim Jones . Wig Design: Greg Bazemore . Dialect Coach: Leigh Wilson Smiley . Resident Production Stage Manager: Anthony O. Bullock . Assistant Stage Managers: Mary Alex Staude, Bryan Boyd . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.