At New Rep: An uprising that sparks an awakening
WATERTOWN – The notion of sacrifice for the greater good is a noble one, but it can seem distant or unreal until an event – or a world war – makes it come to the fore.
The New Repertory Theatre production of David Meyers’ “We Will Not Be Silent” marks the final production directed at New Rep by Artistic Director Jim Petosa, who is leaving the post to concentrate on his other work.
The actress Sarah Muirhead Oakes has shown her musical chops in shows such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Showboat” but here takes on the demanding dramatic role of Sophie Scholl, the German college student at the center of the White Rose, the 1942 resistance movement that called for active opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.
Tim Spears is her interrogator, a government operative named Grunwald, determined to flush out the names of her accomplices and get her to renounce the White Rose. He is a one-stop “good cop/bad cop,” taking pains to sympathize with her cause and portraying himself as a hapless tool of the Nazis just trying to play along to protect his family.
As the play opens, Scholl and Grunwald are already facing off. As the 80-minute work unfolds, The issues raised won’t be limited to her guilt or innocence but will range far afield to include religious beliefs, whether there is life after death, the writings of Immanuel Kant and making the ultimate sacrifice when necessary.
The stakes are high from the start. The distribution of anti-government material in Nazi Germany at the time was a capital crime, and Grunwald offers Sophie the chance to save her life but she is, at the outset, defiant.
We know from history what her ultimate fate will be – in fact, she died at the age of 21 in 1943 via the guillotine – but Meyers’ piece manages to grip us as Oakes’ Sophie runs the gamut of emotions during the extended questioning as Grunwald dangles an endless number of carrots on a stick ion front of her. The White Rose came along at a time when the Third Reich was beginning to show signs of doubt, and the Nazis doubled down with their crackdown on individual rights and increased their surveillance of citizens, lest opposition erode the will to fight.
In keeping with times then and now, the words defiance and resistance are repeated often, but they are tinged with regret, as Sophie realizes what she has done would mean not only for herself, but other family members, including brother Hans (Conor Profit), who is also captured but reunited with her in two dream sequences
Sophie will waver and at times profess regret and an urge to live, but just as quickly stand strong again behind her actions. And Oakes is able to be convincing at every turn.
As Grunwald, the able Spears has a tougher road to hoe. Meyers has made an effort to humanize him rather than portray a Nazi stick figure, but his brutality, duplicity, his withholding food and drink for long periods makes it a bit harder to square with his more human moments, including a final generous gesture and solidarity with her, any trace of which, if detected, would have led to his own date with the guillotine and problems for his family.
Still, “We Will Not Be Silent” is ultimately uplifting because of what her sacrifice for the greater good meant to those who also had questioned or were about to question the validity of the Third Reich, which at the time of Scholl’s execution was in a downward spiral.
Scholl expresses in own words – the quote is mentioned by the departing Petosa in the program notes – the reasoning that led her to both defy authorities and then stay strong until the end.
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day and I have to go, but what does my death matter if, through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
The theme of this season’s productions at New Rep: Awakening.
The New Repertory Theatre production of David Meyers’ “We Will Not Be Silent.” Directed by Jim Petosa. Through Nov. 4 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Tickets: $25-$67. Call 617-923-8487, or visit newrep.org.