Playwright Tom Jacobson’s new play, Walking to Buchenwald, now in production at Open Fist Theatre Company, is thematically complex, weaving together the stories of an elderly couple and their adult child and her long time partner, as they take a trip to Europe. The play is set in the current time after a presidential election and projects into a potential future. Roger (Ben Martin), a retired theatre professor, and his wife Mildred (Laura James) are both in poor health, he with heart problems and she weakened by multiple bouts of cancer. Their daughter, Schiller (Mandy Schneider), and her true love, Arjay (Amielynn Abellera) want desperately to give the old couple the trip of a lifetime, as well as to reveal to them their plans to be married. After some pretty stiff resistance, Roger and Mildred agree to go.
Part of the motivation for the trip is the chance to explore their ancestry, a quest that ends up in Germany after stops in England and France. As they travel, the natural affability of the quartet gets challenged the further east they go. A French waiter snubs them in Paris. A German radical berates them, and bus drivers ignore them. They are nice people and they can’t really understand this escalating hostility.
That Roger decided to name his child Schiller gives a clue to his passion for German culture, which Hitler and the Nazis turned to ashes. How could the country that gave the world the genius of the great poets Schiller and Goethe, the music of Beethoven and Bach, devolve into the bestiality of death camps and genocide? Schiller is a director of strategic planning for a natural history museum and some years older than her partner and a bit rigid, while the younger Arjay is sprightly and much more easy-going. Schiller, eager to keep the tour on track, is hectoring in her efforts, which the parents easily slough off.
The fifth member of the cast, the excellent protean actor Will Bradley, acts as a sort of emcee, greeting the audience and interacting with it throughout the show; he plays museum guides, the French waiter, people on trains and much more, including a skinless, “plastinized” statue in a Body World exhibit.
The production, keenly directed by Roderick Menzies, is visually spare, with a scenic design by Richard Hoover consisting of three large pieces representing museum display cases and five chairs. Ellen Monocroussos’s superb lighting design is crucial to the flow of the show. Tightly focused spotlights highlight individual actors or groups, while sequential flashes create a sense of train motion. Broadly focused lights flesh out different ambiences with gobos that suggest foliage and abstract designs. Peter Carlstedt’s sound design is excellent. I greatly appreciated the songs by Marlene Dietrich, especially her German rendition of “Surrey with the Fringe on the Top.” And the costume design by Kharen Zeunert supports action and defines character.
The episodic structure of the play with its brief scenes does not lead to much depth of character, but that may be the intention. The play is political in nature, skewering the current president, who is not named, and bringing up the many sins of the American past. It is a cautionary tale. Is this walk to Buchenwald a foreshadowing of a slouch towards Bethlehem?
Walking to Buchenwald has alternating sets of actors playing Schiller and Arjay—“Die Damen” (the female cast of Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera) and Die Herren (the male cast of Christopher Cappiello and Justin Huen)—which may change considerably, or not at all, the dynamics of the show.
Walking to Buchenwald—produced by Open Fist Theatre Company, Martha Demson, Artistic Director—runs through October 21 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles.