Stage Left Theatre

“The world is perched on the brink of . . . something!” –Agnes Eggling, in A Bright Room Called Day.

There’s a character named Zillah in Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day: a young Jewish woman with a punky style who harbors an obsessive loathing for Reagan and reads a lot of Nazi-era history. Zillah jumps into the play every so often–even though it’s set in the early 1930s–to offer her funny nasty opinions of the Gipper and his presidency. We are, she insists, living through a new Reich, and Reagan’s the new Hitler. “The differences between their Great Communicator and ours,” she says, “are differences of quality, not quantity: theirs was crazier, ours is stupider.”

Zillah gets into big fights with her family over this Hitler/Reagan thing. “They think my problem is a tendency to get overexcited,” she complains. “I think the problem is basically that we have this event–Germany, Hitler, the Holocaust–which we have made into the standard of Absolute Evil. . . . but now that we have this standard people get frantic as soon as anyone tries to use it. Nothing compares, nothing resembles . . . and the standard becomes unusable, and nothing qualifies as evil with a capital E.”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, putting aside the fact that there’s something just a little grotesque about trying to discover a “usable” standard for evil–as if Auschwitz has no meaning except insofar as it can tell us where other atrocities rate on a scale of one to six million–Zillah’s Hitler/Reagan equation can’t help but backfire on her, obscuring more than it clarifies and excusing more than it indicts. Sure, Reagan’s a bad and thoroughly anti-democratic man who shares Hitler’s contempt for law, for minority rights, for other nations’ borders, and for the truth. But he has yet to declare himself Fuhrer; or to initiate a program of genocide against, say, Chicanos. Which means he’s not quite a Nazi. So calling him one only makes him look that much more benign. And therefore harder to fight. As citizens of the 20th century, we can’t afford to be imprecise–or, God forbid, metaphorical–about evil. There’s too much of it around. Better to go case by case, considering each one unique, taking care never to lose our sense of outrage. And never, ever, to draw parallels. Where evil’s concerned, to be inexact is to be disarmed.

Zillah’s equation is basically an expression of nostalgia. An expression of longing for a simpler, albeit uglier, time when the lines were clear and we won. If Reagan’s Hitler, Zillah thinks, then we know what to do with him–because we handled Hitler, didn’t we? Like I say, I couldn’t disagree more.

But disagreeing with Zillah didn’t ruin Kushner’s play for me. Not by a long shot. It’s fun to see a show this engaged. This passionate and ready to talk. Wild, uneven, pugnacious, ragged, committed, smart, dumb, satirical, and utterly serious, A Bright Room Called Day isn’t afraid to pick a fight.

And neither are the characters. When it’s not being invaded by Zillah, Kushner’s script records the increasingly desperate clashes that take place among a group of lefty artist friends who find themselves trying–and failing–to come up with a response as Berlin goes Nazi in 1932 and ’33. There’s Annabella, a committed communist who draws posters for the Party. Husz, a one-eyed moviemaker from Hungary who got on the wrong side of the Stalin/Trotsky struggle. Baz, a mascaraed gay man who agitates on behalf of the libido. And Paulinka, a successful actress who espouses whatever will get her cast.

Then there’s Agnes: an actress, but not so successful–a communist, but not so committed–a normal, decent, wishy-washy person, in other words, who flounders painfully, clinging to her beloved apartment while swastikas multiply. More than anything, A Bright Room Called Day is about Agnes and how she’s condemned by her lack of purpose.

Kushner tells her story argumentatively, throwing in theatrical devices–like Zillah, or like his series of Brechtian projections offering historical background (i.e., “JANUARY 30, 1933. PRESIDENT HINDENBURG APPOINTS ADOLF HITLER CHANCELLOR OF THE GERMAN REPUBLIC”)–calculated to catch us up in his dialectic. At times, he seems even to be picking a fight with himself, dropping his own stylistic conventions in order to introduce an image from who knows where: that of a hungry old lady who haunts Agnes from time to time; that of a Nazi monster child; that of the devil himself.

Wherever Kushner goes, however messy and pretentious he may became at times, he’s always strong. Always dramatically and intellectually forceful. And most important, always passionately committed. More than a diatribe against Reagan or a falling-into-the-Nazi-abyss history play, A Bright Room is an assertion of the need for commitment. The necessity for commitment in a time of great crimes. And he demonstrates the principle in his own, unequivocal writing. Where else can you find a line like Annabella’s to Agnes, when she says, “The dreams of the left are always beautiful.”

This production, under Bart DeLorenzo’s direction, has its beauty as well. Christine St. John gives a strange, extreme, but absolutely right performance as the opportunistic Paulinka; Debra Rodkin’s an appropriately caustic Zillah; Craig Spidle’s got a nice, hulking quality as one-eyed Husz; and Hilda McLean is absolutely mesmerizing as the ghostly old lady called Die Alte. An old lady herself, with a theatrical career that runs back to her native Germany, McLean expresses an extraordinary ease onstage, casually creating the most chilling moments. It’s fascinating to watch.

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