Signature Theater has demonstrated a curious affinity for Nazi Germany in recent seasons, with several plays and musicals devoted to the subject. Latest offering is a quirky and intriguing new drama by John Strand that sees a slice of World War II through the eyes of a German officer and lets the audience decide between two contrasting versions of his story.
Strand has been prolific on Washington-area stages (“Lovers and Executioners,” “Tom Walker,” “The Miser,” “Three Nights in Tehran”). His clever “Otabenga,” which the current production in many ways favors, was a Signature success under Michael Kahn’s direction. “The Diaries,” a four-character play, was inspired by Ernst Junger, a German writer, entomologist and Nazi officer (1895-1998).
Set in 1978, it focuses on an elderly entomologist named Steve Alton who is about to receive a lifetime achievement award when he’s confronted by an angry young man. He identifies Alton as a former Nazi officer named Stefan Altsanger, whose wartime diaries detail his experiences as a loyal officer in occupied Paris. The play dissolves into a flashback in which the accused portrays himself as a rose among thorns. The diary, he says, was a fake to placate higher-ups. Which we are to believe — the benevolent or evil version — is the principal question posed.
Edward Gero, a busy Washington actor and veteran member of the Shakespeare Theater’s troupe, is cast in the difficult lead role that presents a complex and nuanced portrait. He plays a man in the spotlight, stretching his character through the gamut of contradicting emotions from meek professor to sensitive official to defiant soldier, and generally convinces on all fronts. Emphasizing his predicament further, director P.J. Paparelli has staged the play in the round, while set designer Ethan Sinnott has placed a large lens and manuscript notes on an otherwise bare stage.
Others in the cast play multiple roles. Daniel Frith is the feisty accuser who sets up the play’s tension; he also plays a dimwitted solider in act two. Julia Coffey does a nice turn as protective daughter and wartime resistance leader/love interest, while Sybil Lines doubles as a psychologist and an informer. Some of the roles are undermined by overwriting and overacting, but essentially the play hits the mark.
A second-act battle scene, loudly augmented by sound designer Adam Wernick, could be reined in.
The play was the second commissioned by Signature under a grant by the Hilmar Tharp Sallee Charitable Trust. It will produce four plays in as many years under the gift. Last year’s entry, Norman Allen’s “In the Garden,” received the 2002 Helen Hayes Award for new play.