Born Guilty

A Red Orchid Theatre

No society can survive without stringent self-examination. But can it function, much less flourish, while wallowing in self-recrimination over past crimes? When does healing therapy turn into a new disease that eats away at the fragile values shaping a nation’s identity? Does “never forget” mean “never get over it”?

I could be writing about America, whose history of slavery and genocide shapes the economic, class, and racial tensions that plague our present. As it happens, the play that stirs these thoughts is Born Guilty, about the legacy of Nazism in contemporary Germany. At first this production, running at A Red Orchid Theatre, sounded to me like yet another example of Chicago theaters’ willingness to address social problems on every front except the one at home. But it proves surprisingly timely in light of the resurgence of radical-right politics and anti-Semitic terrorism in Germany, Russia, South Africa, and right here in Chicago. And while it fails to explore the roots of fascism in economic instability and public fears of revolutionary anarchy–two factors that threaten to swamp the post-cold-war world–it does make an important point too often overlooked: a national trauma like German Nazism is really a tapestry of millions of individual traumas, a collection of dysfunctional families that add up to a dysfunctional culture.

Born Guilty is a collection of vignettes linked by the quest of one writer, an Austrian Jew named Peter, to interview adult children of former Nazis. At first dispassionate about the assignment, chosen by an editor as “a sexy angle” on the Holocaust, Peter is soon intrigued and perplexed by his subjects’ reluctance to talk about their families–not only with him but among themselves. Peter’s generation, born during or just after Hitler’s reign, was raised in a state of denial that they’ve never overcome; not only can they not discuss the Third Reich, they have trouble speaking of anything emotional.

So when they do speak–prodded by Peter’s sometimes obnoxious interview style and by their own festering feelings–what comes out is extraordinary. Among the interviewees is Rudolf, a homosexual raised in South America who takes pleasure in remembering how embarrassed his hated macho father, a former SS officer, was when Rudolf was kicked out of school for being gay. “I think it was the second worst day of his life,” Rudolf recalls. No need to say what the worst day was.

The other interviews also expose the love-hate dynamic that exists in all families. If it’s exacerbated by the magnitude of the evil the parents at least passively supported, that makes the situation more complex: how do you separate personal grievances from crimes against humanity? Some respond by either defending or rejecting their parents, but most are ambivalent. Edda, a sexual rebel, sleeps with Jewish men to exorcise her inherited guilt. A young doctor proclaims pride that his ancestors have been medical men for generations–never mind those experiments his father conducted at Dachau. Another protests that his father was only a railroad conductor who “made the trains run on time.” Yes, but what about those unscheduled stops at certain sidings?

Most disturbing are Susanne and her family. Her teenage son Dieter is angry and rebellious, like most adolescents discovering their parents’ feet of clay. But when Dieter’s school research shows that his family’s house, passed down to Susanne by her now-infirm father, was confiscated from a family of deported Jews, it raises conflicts among Susanne, her father, and Dieter that go far beyond the usual family discord. And when Dieter’s classroom report on the matter is mocked by his classmates–“We’re sick and tired of lessons,” they sneer–it raises the chilling specter of a fascist future. Yet these apathetic, alienated kids have a point in protesting an educational system that belabors the past while offering no solutions to a chaotic present.

Refreshingly free of one-sided rhetoric, Born Guilty almost always looks to the personal instead of the polemical; the result is a moving, thought-provoking work that resists easy answers. Its inconclusive ending carries more power than the most ringing solutions–because it’s rooted in the believable and complex characterizations that have preceded it. Much of the credit goes to Ari Roth, the Chicago-born playwright who (on commission from Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage) adapted the 1988 book by Der Spiegel journalist Peter Sichrovsky.

But the production’s haunting, understated emotional impact stems largely from the sensitive story-theater-style direction of Shira Piven and her well-chosen nine-member cast’s superb and varied characterizations in multiple roles. A Chicago Tribune report on the 1991 Arena production noted tension between Arena’s director Zelda Fichandler, “who preferred . . . a documentary-like montage, . . . and Roth, who wanted more a dramatic story growing out of [Peter’s] developing relationships with his subjects.” Roth was right, and Piven’s on the same wavelength: her production, instead of banging us over the head with righteous indignation, insinuates itself into our consciousness, subtly charting Peter’s shifts–the more he learns, the more he realizes he doesn’t know.