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What could they possibly have in common, the Nazi bigwig's sharp-tongued socialite wife and the beleaguered Jewish botany professor that she temporarily rescues from a concentration camp, so that he can revive her moribund gardens? Much more than the casual theatergoer might think.
In Raleigh Ensemble Players' riveting North Carolina premiere production of The Gardens of Frau Hess — a triumph of the imagination written by Jewish playwright Milton Frederick Marcus and superbly staged for REP by director Deb Royals — the aristocratic Frau Ilse Hess (Betsy Henderson), wife of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), is paired with Isaac Baum (Robert Terrell Milner), an apostate Jew who as a schoolboy adopted a Catholic name and identity, earned a doctorate, and went on to teach horticulture at Leipzig University until the Gestapo discovered his true ethnic identity and shipped him off to the Mauthausen death camp.
Baum gets an unlikely reprieve from certain death when Frau Hess recruits him to revitalize the garden at her elegant childhood home in Bavaria. It is hard to imagine two more opposite personalities. Ilse is beautiful, chic, smug, and insufferably arrogant — a spoiled brat born with a silver spoon in her mouth and a true believer in National Socialism and all of its cockamamie theories about Aryan racial superiority. Although she eagerly awaits the imminent return of her husband from his unauthorized one-man "secret mission" to make peace with Great Britain, she cannot deny that the thunder of advancing Allied artillery is coming closer and closer to her home and beloved gardens.
Isaac is a concentration-camp inmate earmarked for death. His frail wife died in a crowded cattle car on the way to Mauthausen, and his grown daughter is God knows where in the apparatus of the Nazi death machine. All that remains of his family is a couple of tattered photographs that he has managed to keep throughout his harrowing experience in Mauthausen. Even Isaac's distinguished career in academia seems like a dream to him now.
It is the genius of dramatist Milton Frederick Marcus that turns The Gardens of Frau Hess — a work of his imagination based on a historical footnote — into a heart-wrenching highly personal drama in which two unlikely antagonists drop their public personas, and reveal their true selves, during a series of conversations that bring these two lonely people closer and closer together. Frau Hess even volunteers to have her good friend Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich Himmler try to locate Baum's daughter.
Betsy Johnson and Terry Milner give, perhaps, the performances of their careers playing these two highly complicated characters. They strip away the superficial differences that divide their characters ideologically and physically. They take breathtaking chances and, in the end, they score a dramatic triumph in the play's heart-breaking climax.
Part of the credit is due to director Deb Royals' superb casting. (Johnson and Terry Milner have just the right chemistry to make their characters complicated relationship believable.) And Royals skillfully orchestrates the action.
Scenic and lighting designer Thomas Mauney provides a splendidly detailed recreation of various areas of Frau Hess' house and gardens, costume designer Diana Waldier contributes impressive period costumes, and sound designer Al Wodarski skillfully interweaves selections from Wagnerian operas, which send Frau Hess into a reverie, with the live action.
This REP production of The Gardens of Frau Hess adds to the company's reputation for producing timely plays that broaden the intellectual horizons of Triangle theatergoers. It is not just another Holocaust drama; it is a personal "experience" that will leave viewers shaken and deeply moved. Don't miss it.
Warning: This production contains adult situations and brief nudity.
Second Opinion: Raleigh, NC News & Observer correspondent Adam Sobsey's Feb. 14 review: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/995945p-6995005c.html.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents The Gardens of Frau Hess Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21 and 26-28, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II (second floor), 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except Feb. 19 pay-what-you-can performance ($5 suggested minimum). Note 1: Group rates are available. Note 2: There will be an audio-described and sign-language-interpreted performance — with Touch Tour, large-print and Braille programs, and new laptop captioning — starting at 7 p.m. Feb. 20. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/HESSreservation.htm. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/2004/shows/current2004.htm.