Watch on the Rhine
Strong play sapped by uneven accents
|The Artistic Home presents|
|Watch on the Rhine|
Review by Catey Sullivan
One of Lillian Hellman’s great gifts is her ability to take the vast, globally trenchant issues of the day and convey them in deeply personal, intensely specific terms. She does that beautifully in Watch on the Rhine, a drama that starts out as a gentle, drawing room drama and morphs into a clarion call to action against fascism. When it premiered in 1941, the drama brought the encroaching shadows of atrocity spreading over Europe like a gangrenous bruise and put them squarely into the living rooms of Americans. Watch on the Rhine opened April 1 – just over eight months before the U. S. entered World War II. Those who saw the play didn’t need Pearl Harbor to bring home the fact that the Nazis and their supporters presented an immediate danger and a horrific affront to the tenants of basic human decency.
The Artistic Home’s take on this American classic is a hit-and-miss affair. The performances director Cody Estle wrests from his 11-member cast range from affecting to dismaying, the latter often the result of some absolutely awful accents so inauthentic that they pull you right out of the story. Still, the piece has a solid anchor in Kathy Scambiaterra’s strong-minded, tart-tongued Fanny Farrelly, the grande dame whose genteel southern home becomes a staging area for a life-and-death showdown between the forces of good and evil.
A family reunion is in the offing at the top of Watch on the Rhine.” Matriarch Fanny is in high dudgeon, berating servants Anise (Lorraine Freund) and Joseph (Brandon Boler), who have no problems standing up to her eccentric, obsessive demands. Fanny’s son David (John Stokvis) doesn’t escape her relentless tongue-lashings either, as the mother insists the son head for the train station to pick up his long-absent sister Sara despite the fact that Sara’s train isn’t due for almost four hours. Scambiaterra starts out as a one-woman hurricane as Fanny, and brings a vibrant comedy to the sometimes otherwise sluggish proceedings.
The sumptuously appointed Farrelly home (elegantly detailed work by set designer Jeff Kmiec and set dresser Mary O’Dowd) is also hosting Teck de Brancovis (Joshua J. Volkers), a displaced Romanian count and his angry, sad-eyed, American wife Martha (Tiffany Bedwell). The couple is unhappy in both love and money. Their wedding was a calculated arrangement between families rather than the result of passion; the air becomes downright frosty when the two are alone on stage together. Despite his lofty title, the Count de Brancovis is one desperate step away from penury.
For the first act of Watch on the Rhine, Hellman crafts an effective if not particularly memorable family drama with most of the action centering on the return of Fanny’s daughter Sara (Kristin Collins) after a 20-year absence. Sara has been living in Europe with her husband Kurt (Scot West), and has borne three precocious children who marvel at the luxuriousness of their new surroundings and quickly impress their formidable grandmother with their facility for languages. As a subplot, Hellman adds in a dash of romantic intrigue, setting up the unhappy Countess de Brancovis and Farrelly scion David as somewhat star-cross’d lovers.
It’s not until the second act that Hellman really digs in to the meat of her story. The terrifying, ugly march of the Third Reich may be an ocean away, but Hellman succeeds in bringing it squarely into the Farrelly’s beautiful home. Kurt, we learn, is an integral part of a highly dangerous underground resistance movement, and when news of one of his compatriots’ capture reaches the Farrellys, he’s forced to make a murderous decision that rips the rosy veil of blissful ignorance and safe distance from the well-off clans’ eyes, forcing them to contend with the events unfolding overseas.
Hellman’s script is solidly plotted as the tension goes from 0 to 60 in the space of a single scene. And Scambiaterra is indeed powerful as she captures Fanny’s evolution from a noisily outspoken, domineering woman whose chief concerns are thoroughly wrapped up in her domestic domain into a portrait of a hushed, shocked woman forced to reckon with evils she couldn’t have dreamed of.
But despite the strength of the leading lady, Watch on the Rhine falters significantly. The atrocious accents of the supporting characters are a major trouble spot. Freund’s Anise grates like a potato peeler scraped across the ear drum every time she speaks. West’s German is at times unintelligible. And the Count’s Romanian is a broad, generic version of an Eastern European dialect that’s got more in common with Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha than reality.
Finally – and while this might seem like a quibble, it’s a distracting sticking point – Anise’s hairdo is a total anachronism. Why take the trouble to give the other woman 1940s-appriate coifs and leave Anise looking like she just stepped in from a future some half a century distant?
Hellman’s story is a solid American classic that remains as timely now as it was more than 60 years ago. But at the Artistic Home, that story hits the ear with such inauthenticity here that its strength is sapped.
Watch on the Rhine continues through November 16th at The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $28-$32, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheArtisticHome.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes two intermissions)
Photos by Tim Knight
Kathy Scambiaterra (Fanny Farrelly), Lorraine Freund (Anise), Brandon Boler (Joseph), John Stokvis (David Farrelly), Tiffany Bedwell (Marthe de Brancovis), Joshua J. Volkers (Teck de Brancovis), Kristin Collins (Sara Muller), Declan Collins (Joshua Muller), Liam Dahlborn (Bodo Muller), Elodie Togne (Babette Muller), Scot West (Kurt Muller).
behind the scenes
Cody Estle (director), John Mossman (production stage manager), Kristin Collins, Kathy Scambiaterra (producers), Jason Crutchfield (stage manager), Jack Bourgeois (assistant director), Jeff Kmiec (set design), Garvin Jellison (lighting design), Lauren Roark (costume design), Adam Smith (sound design), Mary O’Dowd (properties design), Dylan Jost (technical director), Jen Dorman (graphic design), Sam Hubbard (fight choreography), Lindsay Bartlett (dialect coach), Tim Knight (photos)