History remembers the late 1930s as a daunting precursor to one of the darkest times in the world's history of violence; when one man led a nation against a race of people, leaving millions dead in the wake of calculated hatred. For Jews it was the beginning of a reign of terror targeting their beliefs, traditions, and even physical appearances. By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, German Jews had been suffering the prejudices of the Nuremburg Laws and even internment in the concentration camp of Dachau in Munich. And yet, while the world of thousands was changing the shape of history altogether, many of the "Aryan" middle class continued their lives and business as usual. In C.P. Taylor's Good, one such man, John Halder, a German academic and university professor is faced with the Nazi rationale based on their interest in his novel supporting the case for euthanasia. Halder, educated and unremarkable in wealth or status, shares qualities with a majority of middle-class citizens and, certainly a deliberate decision of Taylor's, audience members. Halder is educated, well read, a music lover, and compassionate enough; he cares for his ailing mother, his perhaps manic-depressive wife, and three children. In the years prior to the war, he simply could not be bothered to take a radical stance against the prejudice of the Nazi party. Wasn't it just a political stunt that would eventually fade into the background? When Halder's novel supporting the case for euthanasia piques the interest of the leadership in the Nazi party, he follows the path of least resistance to join the S.S. as an academic and propagandist for what would come to be known as the "Final Solution." John Halder's lethal indifference paints him sympathetic and despicable, all at once.
This is the premise for Good, which director Ian Finley has undertaken as the fourth installment of Burning Coal Theatre Company's five-show season. At the February 1 performance, they carried it off well enough. Halder, played by Steven Roten, introduces the audience in several asides to the tunes of his pseudo-psychoses; the various bands of musicians that visit his mind as he copes with the various obligations of his life. With the burden of an ailing mother (Julie Oliver), a more decidedly neurotic wife (Tamara Farias Kraus), a student mistress (Jessica Heironimus), and his friendship with his Jewish psychiatrist Maurice (Rob Jenkins) jeopardized by the interests of the Nazi party, Halder seems justified in the slight stress in which he indulges. Roten was endearingly neurotic and captured the sense that Halder is an everyman, comparable to anyone watching his dilemmas unfold. Rob Jenkins delivered with honesty the fear of a Jewish man threatened by a party he has no concern for. Julie Oliver performed Halder's aging mother with appropriate anger at the betrayal of a body unsuited to the sharpness of her mind, while Tamara Farias Kraus and Jessica Heironimus engage in a juicy bit of tension when Helen, Halder's wife, politely confronts his student mistress Anne.
Unfortunately, the brief dialogue in that section, rife with subtext, proved the tensest moment of the show. Given the circumstances of Halder's position in the Nazi party, which audiences now know to be abhorrent, and the timeline of the play leading right up to the start of the war, viewers expect Halder to either take a stand decidedly for or against the Nazis, or reap the consequences of his indecision. This was not the case. Halder does not lose his friendship with Maurice, Maurice is not tragically killed, Halder's separation from his wife fizzles out unresolved, and even his supposed passionate affair with Anne seems shallow and loveless.
The ensemble (Matthew Hager, Sydney Mitchell, Alex Smith, Paul Paliyenko, and Fred Corlett) provides brief, sometimes comedic, interludes as the bands in Halder's mind and beautiful still images serve as live backdrops for scenes. These were most striking under ED Intemann's lighting of the book burnings against his striking red set, but there was not enough to totally bridge the peaks in action of an almost two* hour run time.
Burning Coal's production of Good asks difficult questions of its audience. If Halder is essentially a good man and so easily rationalizes such despicable actions, what might a population unrepressed by a tyrannical government be rationalizing away in order to follow the path of least resistance? With a long run time and little opportunity to invest in the characters, the audience simply lost interest in the answers.
The show runs through 2/17. For details, see the sidebar.