The Action Against Sol Schumann

Victory Gardens Theater

By Kerry Reid

David Horowitz’s name doesn’t come up once in Jeffrey Sweet’s taut, moving, intelligent play. But in the difficult issues Sweet raises I felt the weighty presence of this vociferous and controversial opponent of slave reparations. How do we forgive the unforgivable? More to the point, should we even try? Can we ever make amends for the most unimaginable acts of inhumanity? How long is too long to hang on to the past? When does justice curdle into vengeance? And how can someone be a good family man but a terrible member of the family of man?

These are just some of the questions Sweet touches on. And it’s to his immense credit (and the immense relief of any self-respecting, thoughtful theatergoer) that he doesn’t try to provide an answer to any of them. Instead he couches these issues in a story inspired by a real-life event and fleshed out with complex characters, unexpected flashes of humor, and well-crafted, heartbreaking plot twists. Dennis Zacek’s streamlined direction in this Victory Gardens world premiere serves the material well, and his cast hit most of the notes with unfussy but carefully detailed performances.

Set in Brooklyn in 1985, the play revolves around Sol Schumann, a kindly, somewhat doddering Orthodox Jew, a concentration camp survivor whose two sons have chosen very different paths. Aaron is a solitary, acerbic firebrand whose latest cause is protesting Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery, final resting place of several SS officers. His younger brother, Michael, happily married to a sweet shiksa, is eager to let the past be the past. The two brothers argue in a bar after Aaron returns from Germany. “Some people are good because it’s been easy for them to be good,” Michael says. “They’ve never faced a hard choice. And maybe, if they did face one, maybe they wouldn’t have measured up.” Aaron will have none of such equivocation. “What you do, that’s who you are. You are the person who does that thing.”

The barroom philosophizing takes a devastating personal turn when the elder Schumann (played with disarming charm by Bernie Landis) is accused of serving as a Kapo, a prisoner who helped the Nazis keep order in the camps. The drama here comes not from figuring out whether Sol is guilty–he admits it abruptly when confronted by his sons. It comes from determining the degree of his guilt. Was he acting purely in the interest of self-preservation? Did he try to help his fellow Jews when the Nazis weren’t looking? And given his guilt, what could he possibly do now to atone for his actions? Most important, how will his past affect his beloved sons?

Less intuitive artists might have handled the shifts in Sweet’s plot with cheap histrionics–or, in an effort to avoid that, clinical detachment. But Zacek’s nine cast members play them subtly and with emotional truth. At times Sweet’s division between Aaron’s Old Testament idealism and Michael’s more forgiving nature threatens to become too pat. But Robert K. Johansen as Aaron and Eli Goodman as Michael give their performances enough rueful self-awareness that their characters never devolve into knee-jerk devices.

The women are more problematic–particularly Diane, the journalist who first follows Aaron’s Bitburg protests, then takes up the story of his father’s fight against deportation. Kati Brazda plays Diane with cool intelligence, at one point telling the almost irritatingly fervent Aaron, “You remind me of the boyfriend in college I didn’t have.” (To which the semiwounded Aaron responds, “I remind you of someone who didn’t exist?”) But the script’s one false note is Diane’s somewhat unethical attempt to extort Aaron’s cooperation on her story in exchange for information that could help his father. And though Diane recognizes Aaron’s central flaw early on (“Have you ever forgiven anyone? Ever?”), her ability to see through him and his bravado doesn’t make the supposed attraction between them feel natural.

Playing Michael’s wife, Melissa Carlson Joseph has little to do besides stand around and be supportive of her husband. Amy Ludwig fares better as Leah, Aaron’s comrade-in-arms and onetime lover and Sol’s current defense attorney. Also the child of a Holocaust survivor, Leah palpably struggles with helping a man who hurt so many. Ludwig conveys Leah’s enduring, wistful love for Aaron’s courage, tempered by her understanding of his unconquerable bitterness, through a panoply of gentle glances and gestures.

Roslyn Alexander shines in a trio of roles, particularly as Rivka, a frail camp survivor. And Richard Henzel, who plays four roles, admirably manages the transformation from slick Reagan apologist to grief-stricken accuser. As Paul, the investigator assigned to Sol’s case, Anthony Fleming III is rather stiff and one-dimensional, one eyebrow perpetually raised at skeptical half-mast. But a conversation between Paul and a Jewish activist eager for him to dismiss the case (Henzel) is brilliantly constructed and performed, laying out some of the story’s most troubling aspects.

Zacek’s decision to have the entire cast almost always present onstage, sitting in simple chairs along the wall of Mary Griswold’s understated set, beautifully suggests the vital importance of bearing witness to painful events. (It also recalls a staging device frequently used for Peter Weiss’s 1965 drama, The Investigation, based on the testimony of Holocaust survivors.) And Zacek’s brisk pacing is wholly appropriate to this world, where events are spinning out of control and split-second decisions affect the rest of people’s lives. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting shifts from the stark shafts of harsh white spotlights to soft, evanescent swirls of color that play off the clouds visible beyond the doors of the set.

Sweet’s poignant story provides a glimmer of hope for bridging the gap between justice and peace, past and present. At the same time it shows that the human costs of reaching that point are unfathomable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.