At the New Jewish Theatre, director F. Reed Brown has mounted a strong production of Born Guilty, a flawed but searing piece adapted by playwright Ari Roth from a 1987 book by Peter Sichrovsky. Sichrovsky set out to look at the Holocaust legacy from the other side: What's it like to be the descendants of the Germans -- both Nazis and ordinary citizens -- who participated in the atrocities of World War II? It's a challenging and provocative subject, and Roth universalizes it by posing questions that apply not only to post-Nazi Germany but to any culture -- indeed, any family -- that has its share of secrets.
How long do we need to remember? How long are the descendants culpable for the sins of their ancestors? Is there ever a time when we can or should just forget and get on with it? Roth, by way of Sichrovsky, puts human faces on a wide variety of responses to these questions in a series of monologues and dramatizations based on actual interviews. Some of the characters want answers about their ancestors, whereas others prefer not to know the truth; after all, Father was merely a "policeman" or a train conductor, albeit on a death train. Other characters' lives have been destroyed, either from living with shame or living with lies, and one, a creepy doctor (well played by David S. Brink), has embraced Nazism as a way to get close to his father. And then there's a whole new generation of Germans who are tired of hearing about the sufferings they had nothing to do with. The subject could just as easily be slavery in the U.S. or the "elephant in the kitchen" that families choose to ignore.
Roth has made Sichrovsky himself a narrator and character in the play. His search for interview subjects -- as well as for an answer to the larger question of "How could this happen?" -- becomes the play's through-line. This helps keep the play in the present, as Peter (played by John A. Dalton) encounters German clerks and families who remind us that the attitudes and fears of the past are still very much alive. But dramatically, the search doesn't provide a sufficient story arc for the play's two acts, and Dalton isn't a strong enough presence to anchor the action through character alone. The result is not so much a play as a series of scenes. Some hold our attention, others don't, depending on the writing and acting. The story of Susanne (a very good Linda Meade) and the effect of the revelation of family secrets by her son Dieter (Scott Iverson in an understated, excellent performance) is the most satisfying of the threads, but it doesn't kick in till the second act.
Like most of NJT's productions, Born Guilty is a St. Louis premiere, and artistic director Kathleen Sitzer should be commended for bringing the play to town. The standouts in the cast, in addition to Brink in several roles, are Lori Gibson as Sibylle, who delivers a riveting monologue describing how her childhood with a dictatorial father has informed her relationships in the present, and Jennifer L. Losapio, who is chilling as the 17-year-old German girl who's had it with all this talk of the Jews. All the actors play more than one role, and Brown has seen to it that Rebecca Morris Goldman, Kimberly Sansone, Valerie Vanderstappen, Gary Cox, Jim True and Susan Farkas all give their various characters distinction. Also worthy of note is Milton Zoth's excellent sound design, which creates a haunting mood that helps establish the tone of the evening.
Brown tempers the docudrama aspect of the script with ritualistic staging and a video simulcast that sometimes interacts with the onstage action, sometimes symbolically comments on it. By the end of the evening, a room on the video monitor has filled with chairs, echoing the single chair that hangs from the ceiling of Brown's set. They seem to hold the ghosts of both victims and perpetrators. Roth, Sichrovsky and Brown present no simple answers; no person is good in all their deeds, and things aren't always black and white. The important thing is to be aware of the ghosts and to never stop asking why.