There's nothing like a loud bang at the end of Act One to make you impatient for the end of the intermission so you can scurry back to your seat and find out what happens next. Especially if that bang shreds every notion you had about the play up to that point. Davie-based playwright Michael McKeever must agree. His compelling new play, The Garden of Hannah List, now at Florida Stage in Manalapan, doesn't require even the tiniest jolt of caffeine to keep you awake between acts. Suspense is so rare in theater these days that you may find yourself standing around with your mouth wide open, trying to digest the notion that you've actually been taken by surprise. What a damn fine feeling that is.
And yet the dramatic TKO McKeever pulls off in the first act is nothing compared to the emotional workout he puts audiences through in the second. Indeed, The Garden of Hannah List is that rare thing: an American political drama that doesn't pull punches. Set in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1938, the play doesn't exactly have a Holocaust theme. There are no Jews in it, and only a few token Nazis. McKeever's program notes say that the story was inspired by a family friend who "as a little girl actually sat on Hermann Goering's lap." But in a larger sense, it's driven by the playwright's intelligent exploration of human behavior, particularly the question of how one should act in the face of evil.
Specifically, how do you act when Nazis are regular guests at your dinner table? Hannah List is a socialite, a widow with grown children, and a member of the inner circle of prewar dinner parties. She's a confidante of those who are fine-tuning the Final Solution and the annexation of Europe. A retired history teacher, Hannah entertains and mentors Otto, a former student who's now a member of the S.S. And when wet-behind-the-swastika members of the Hitler Youth drop by to ask for donations, Hannah readily sends the butler for her purse. But things are not as they seem: Several Nazis and Hitler Youth members -- eighteen of them, in fact -- have gone missing.
Set entirely in Hannah's lush garden, a seductive ivy-framed, snapdragon-festooned Eden created by Richard Crowell, the play is part mystery thriller, part political treatise, and part human tragedy. In a strange, endearing way, it's also a sinister retelling of Arsenic and Old Lace, the 1941 comedy in which a pair of pixilated old ladies do away with their gentlemen callers. Nobody's drinking elderberry wine in Hannah List's garden. And there's nothing cute about the protestations that her children make over their mother's camaraderie with Hitler's high-ranking officers. Her son Oscar, who with his fiancee Karma is applying for an exit visa to go to the United States, is appalled. "What they're doing, it's wrong," he says. "I can't understand why you don't see that. Why let them into your house?"
Hannah's daughter Lottie, who lives next door with her husband Rudy, would prefer that her mother simply forbid political talk in the family home. She's also uncomfortable during the visits from Otto, who was her one-time beau. "I learned about the great strategies of war from this woman," Otto says of Hannah. When Oscar tells Hannah that Otto is a dolt, she replies, "He's a well-meaning boy. What he lacks in intelligence, he makes up for in loyalty." By play's end Hannah will have manipulated Otto's loyalty for her own gain. But at what sacrifice?
While the action of the play turns on the discovery of Hannah's part in the disappearance of the missing men, its emotional heart is elsewhere. Early in Act Two Hannah compares herself to Charlotte Corday, the woman who murdered the eighteenth-century French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Corday, whose oversize portrait hangs in Hannah's garden foyer, was, in Hannah's words, a "truly great woman" who killed one man "to save 100,000" before she was martyred. In her own time, some thought Corday a murderer, others a saint. Likewise, at the end of the play, one of Hannah's children accuses her of doing nothing while the other condemns her for doing too much.
Can you remain righteous while doing evil? Under what circumstances can you take morality into your own hands? Is murder committed in the name of justice still murder? In the program notes, McKeever says that the key to constructing his play was his realization that he must raise these questions, not answer them. He's spot on. Mediocre works of art answer big questions. Great works force us to face those questions, no matter how uncomfortable we become. The emotional poundage of the play weighs in on Hannah's side, but however much you condone her actions, you can't dismiss her critics. McKeever's strategy is to play different moral points of view against each other, and the effect is breathtaking.
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As Hannah, Marcia Mahon anchors the production with a solid, if not brilliant, serenity. Her performance has shades of irony. As she watches nearby Nazi rallies from her garden, for example, she seems to be placidly taking in the spectacles; only later do we realize that her enjoyment is multilayered. As her trusty butler Herr Kubizek, Ryan Hilliard has the one role that can be considered comic. His deadpan delivery covers more than a mere sphinx-like personality. As Hannah's children, Finnerty Steeves and Greg Longenhagen are also strong, though Longenhagen is a screamer, an effect that distracts from the tensions in Act Two. As Rudy, Hannah's son-in-law, and Karma, Oscar's fiancee, Mark Ulrich and Susan Gay are particularly sharp. The Nazis -- Stephen G. Anthony, Travis Otto, and Clay Buchanan -- all nicely personify the banality of evil. David Pair's sound design is provocative and lovely, as are Don Magone's exquisite period costumes.
Also powerful is the tone of the production, directed by Henry Fonte. In his own program notes, he says that as a child in Cuba in the late 1950s, "[I] watched my parents first fight for Castro, and then turn violently against him. I saw the consequences of taking a moral stand." Happily for theatergoers, the creative union of Fonte and McKeever results in a production that transcends the specifics of time and place, however horrific some of those times and places were. To be sure, the play addresses the evils of Nazism and, by association, Castro's reign. In the rare instance that McKeever puts a speech in Hannah's mouth, what comes out is one of the most articulate condemnations of the Germans' indifference to the Jews ever voiced.
But McKeever -- the author of seven plays in the past two years -- doesn't limit his scrutiny to those who tolerated the Third Reich. The play will retain its power long after those bearing witness to Hitler and Castro are gone. What's less likely to be sustained, I fear, is our appetite for plays that don't resolve the conflicts they raise. As a nation, we prefer feel-good stories and odes to success. (Warren Beatty's "political" movie Bulworth is just the latest example.) The price of taking a stand is very dear, McKeever reminds us. Hannah loses much of what's meaningful to her, but her words to the apolitical Rudy ring loudly: "How empty your life must be, to have no cause."
The Garden of Hannah List.
Written by Michael McKeever; directed by Henry Fonte; with Marcia Mahon, Greg Longenhagen, Finnerty Steeves, Mark Ulrich, Susan Gay, Ryan Hilliard, Stephen G. Anthony, Travis Otto, and Clay Buchanan. Through June 14. Florida Stage, 262 S Ocean Blvd, Manalapan; 561-585-3433.