Entertainment » Theatre

Watch on the Rhine

by Elaine Beale
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Dec 8, 2017
Watch on the Rhine

First staged in April 1941, Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine" had much to say to an American audience who were still largely spectators of the war in Europe. Set in the elegant home of a well-to-do American family, the play gradually draws the matriarch, the domineering and drily witty Fanny Farelly, and her son David, into the schemes and machinations of their European guests. Ultimately, the two are forced from the comfort of their everyday ignorance to make a clear and uncomfortable moral choice.

That Berkeley Rep chose to stage "Watch on the Rhine" at this time is no great surprise. What is perhaps surprising is the fact that this drawing room drama holds up so admirably. Indeed, the play resonates on two levels.

First, because we have the benefit of hindsight and, hence, a full understanding of the human ruin that European fascism wrought, we know more deeply what is at stake for the characters than audiences may have realized in 1941. Second, aware that we are currently facing our own national moral reckoning right now, the choices of Hellman's characters feel deeply relevant to our lives.

Hellman skillfully moves us from what begins as a charming comedy -- involving snooping and back-talking servants and conflicts about the annoying breakfast bell -- into a high-stakes drama with unknown numbers of human lives on the line. Dialogue that's replete with one-line zingers and acerbic witticisms gradually shifts into conversations filled with double entendres, obfuscation and allusions to faraway politics.

All this is delivered by actors who give consistently engaging performances. As Fanny, Caitlin O'Connell injects the play with her forceful energy from start to end. Hugh Kennedy is aptly understated as the son who's lived under the shadow of an unimpeachable dead father, while Sarah Agnew gives a nuanced performance as his sister, Sara Muller. And as Marthe, the long-suffering wife in a loveless marriage, Kate Guentzel is a consistently magnetic presence.

The Europeans in the mix are equally compelling, with Elijah Alexander delivering a standout performance as the anti-fascist Kurt Muller-embodying the bravery, intelligence and vulnerability of a man willing to risk himself for his cause. As the Romanian, Teck De Brancovis, Jonathan Walker is the perfect portrait of someone driven by selfish calculation. And the performances of the talented young actors who play the Mullers' children are both charming and convincing.

The action takes place on a beautifully rendered set (design by Neil Patel) that feels so real that one can imagine stepping onto the stage, out of the French doors, and into the garden beyond. Visually rich costuming (Raquel Barreto) and lighting (Alexander V. Nichols) add to the drama and authenticity, allowing the audience to immerse itself in the story.

At almost three hours (including the 15-minute intermission), "Watch on the Rhine" might be expected to feel a little long. In fact, the action moves energetically and swiftly. And because it pulls you in and involves you deeply in the quandaries of its characters, the Rep's production never drags. Instead, it does the job of truly good theater-it entertains and engages, while also pushing you to explore the important moral questions of our times.

"Watch on the Rhine" runs through Jan 14, 2018 at The Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley. For info or tickets, call 510 647-2949 or visit the theater's website


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