The Reich Stuff

When Hermann Goering met Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1922, he pledged a lifetime of service to the future German fhrer. Goering worked tirelessly within the German political system to ensure that Hitler gained absolute power in 1933. Serving as Hitler's second in command, Goering headed the formidable Luftwaffe (the German air force) during World War II. When he was brought to trial after the war, in 1945 and 1946 at Nuremberg, he refused to implicate Hitler in any way -- even though Hitler had ordered the execution of Goering and his family before Hitler himself committed suicide in April 1945. (The orders were never carried out.) Cunning, manipulative, and slavishly devoted to authority, Goering fit the conventional description of a ruthless Nazi official. Yet the man was also an art connoisseur, dedicated to his wife and daughter, intelligent, refined, and witty -- characteristics that defy the popular image of a Nazi monster.

Playwright Romulus Linney explores these seeming contradictions in Goering's personality in his 1990 play 2. Although best known for his dramas about the eccentric sides of small-town life in the American South (1971's Holy Ghosts, 1979's Tennessee), Linney is no stranger to writing about historical figures. He has chronicled aspects of the lives of Lord Byron (1977's Childe Byron), Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1989's Akhmatova), and Jesus (1977's Old Man Joseph and His Family). Linney was commissioned to write 2 by the Actors' Theatre of Louisville. The drama, playing through this weekend at the Pope Theatre in Manalapan, depicts Goering during the final year and a half of his life, when the former Nazi commander, number two behind Hitler in the Third Reich's hierarchy, was kept in solitary confinement in the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg from May 1945 through October 1946 A at first awaiting his trial, then his verdict, and, finally, his death. While attempting to lay bare Goering's enigmatic character through a series of interactions and arguments with, and manipulations of, his American captors, his German lawyer, a Jewish American psychiatrist, and the International Military Tribunal prosecutors, Linney also examines the nature of both evil and responsibility.

At its best, this ambitious undertaking proves simultaneously fascinating and frightening, in large part owing to -- in this current production, anyway -- Gail Garrisan's straightforward, no-nonsense direction and John Felix's chilling performance as Goering. The material also seems particularly harrowing in light of how little progress humankind has made since the Nazis' gristly agenda was publicly exposed at the actual Nuremberg trials 50 years ago. In the play, the court-appointed psychiatrist (Larry Belkin) implores, "After this terrible war the world must come together and give up its racial stereotypes." Depressing as it may be, his remark sounds naive considering recent events in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda. Goering's prediction for the future -- "There won't be countries any more, just races hating each other" -- rings with a more painful truth.

The play conveys an equally sobering illustration of American racism and, along with that illustration, the implication that the morally righteous nations prosecuting the Nazis (the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Britain, and France) should have looked to their own practices before indignantly condemning Germany. A black sergeant (Billy E. Langley II) and a Southern captain (Stephen G. Anthony) from the U.S. Army stand guard at the door inside Goering's cell; the captain denigrates the sergeant by calling him "boy." Goering slyly wins the trust of each when the other is out of the room: He appeals to the sergeant's sense of humiliation at the hands of a "redneck," and to the captain's feelings of superiority over a "nigger."

However, despite the inherent power of its material and the promise of illuminating the subjects of evil and responsibility, 2 ends up being more of an intellectual exercise with a facile gimmick up its sleeve than a fully realized drama. Linney simply reports many of the facts instead of dramatizing them, and too often he pontificates on the surface aspects of his themes instead of probing their elusive undersides. Thus the show unfolds more like a documentary than an act of dramatic imagination.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Linney's reliance on footage from an actual concentration camp to grip audience members' hearts instead of on language and characterization to expose the nightmarish soul of Nazi horror. Undeniably the most shattering part of the play, the film scenes are also 2's weakest element because they undermine the playwright's examination of the meaning of responsibility. In fact Linney relinquishes his own artistic responsibility to create an original work by relying on emotionally laden existing material to carry the weight of the play for him. In other words, although they're upsetting and effective, the concentration camp images remain something of a cheap trick.

At one point in the first act, during Goering's trial, the stage lights go down and a Forties movie begins to flicker across the back stage wall. The title A Dachau Concentration Camp A flashes by, and then the film cuts to a montage of gut-wrenching, mind-numbing images: flies crawling over hollow-eyed skulls, emaciated corpses being tossed into wagons, living skeletons with flesh hanging from their bones propped up and paraded before the cameras. The films, copies of actual footage shown at Nuremberg, are on loan from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., for this production; although the script doesn't require this specific footage to be shown, it does call for images of atrocities to be projected at that particular point in the action.

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