AN UNCERTAIN HOUR
At least after Dante Alighieri journeyed through the dark wood and witnessed the unspeakable horrors of the Inferno, he had the words of the poet Virgil to guide him into Purgatory and the light of his beloved Beatrice to take him into Paradise. Twentieth-century Italian author Primo Levi wasn’t so lucky: he never escaped the terror of his memories.
Nicholas Patricca’s An Uncertain Hour, enjoying its world premiere at Bailiwick Repertory, posits Levi–who relied on The Divine Comedy to comfort him while he was a prisoner in the inferno that was Auschwitz–as the Dante of our time. But unlike Dante, Levi did not exist in a just universe where punishments were meted out in direct correlation to sins; in his world the torments of hell were inflicted on those who happened to be born Jewish. And for the solitary Levi there wasn’t even the promise of a Beatrice to give him strength.
When Primo Levi died in 1987 in his Turin home at the age of 68, his death was reported widely as a suicide, the act of a man who could no longer endure his painful memories of the Holocaust. But in Patricca’s play Levi’s life serves as an example of how faith in justice and belief in the power of art can overcome the failings of an unjust world.
An Uncertain Hour takes place on the last day of Levi’s life, charting his thoughts and memories, sliding back and forth between real time and the time that exists inside Levi’s mind. Levi teaches a young boy to appreciate the language of Dante’s Inferno while at the same time conducting an imaginary debate with philosopher Jean Amery. (Using poetic license, Patricca suggests that Amery was a buddy of Levi’s from the camps.) Amery cannot accept Levi’s notion that humanity and art retain their dignity even in the wake of Nazism. He views Levi as an apologist, and he serves throughout the play as a counterbalance for Levi’s hopefulness. At play’s end, Levi dies accidentally; it’s Amery who commits suicide.
Much of the play consists of Levi’s memories of the Holocaust, and Patricca depicts these horrors with the insistence of a recurrent nightmare. He shifts abruptly from a scene in the present back to moments in which Levi is packed into a cattle car heading for Auschwitz or hiding out from air raids with an Italian mason who protects him from the sadistic camp guard. The sequences, impossible to suppress, repeat themselves and grow more vivid and detailed each time.
An Uncertain Hour is challenging theater, owing more to the highly intellectual styles of Israel’s Joshua Sobel and Switzerland’s Max Frisch than to any contemporary American playwright. All the “action” in the play is mental. Although it has its moving aspects, especially in its depictions of Auschwitz, the play is designed to make an audience think, not shock it or bring it to tears. And if the play doesn’t fully succeed as drama, its failures occur on a level far beyond what most authors would dare to attempt.
Its shortcomings lie in Patricca’s tendency to overstate the obvious. Overlong monologues at the beginnings of both acts bog down the drama unnecessarily. The first, a lecture on the mental process in which one must engage before killing another man, delivered by Amery, is belabored. The second, which consists of two concurrently delivered speeches by Nazi scientists about the methods of torture inflicted on concentration camp victims, is chilling but adds little to our understanding of the play; also, unlike the rest of the play, it seems to occur outside the scope of Levi’s thought process. Furthermore, Levi’s interactions with his young Dante student are rendered in an irritating, catechizing style. Their discussions of The Divine Comedy feel forced and too cute by half.
These faults, however, are minor when compared with the play’s scope and intelligence. That Bailiwick has chosen this demanding show to inaugurate its new status as an Equity house is a testament to the courage of both the theater company and artistic director David Zak, who as director of An Uncertain Hour delivers an assured and compelling production of exquisite beauty and uncompromising skill.
With the exception of a few opening-night stumbles, the cast is uniformly excellent. As Levi and Amery, old pros Gene Terruso and Jim Ortlieb turn in thoughtful and subtle performances, respectfully allowing Patricca’s words to seep through them instead of turning their roles into what easily could have been a couple of show-offy star turns. But the show is nearly stolen by Andrew Hawkes, who creates an unforgettably charismatic portrait of the Italian brick mason who befriended Levi in the concentration camp. Special mention must also be given to lighting designer Julio Pedota, whose shadowy illuminations create the perfect dreamlike state in which to wage the thought-provoking internal battles of Primo Levi.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Photo.