A forceful morality drama with a poetic theatricality and an accusatory bite, Joshua Sobol’s “iWitness” is based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant who was beheaded for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. In an impeccable, urgent production, director Barry Edelstein infuses Sobol’s contemplation on martyrdom with the right blend of style and straightforwardness, small-scale specificity and thematic size. The balance is especially important for a play in which the tribulations of a conscientious objector serve as a parable for collective guilt, including — it’s never said outright but it’s there nonetheless — our own.
“iWitness” is set during the latter part of World War II, yet the current war in Iraq seems not too far from its mind. This emphasis may well reflect Edelstein’s adaptation more than the Israeli Sobol’s original version; in the context of its original 2003 production, the play probably shone as commentary on Israeli government policies, against which some soldiers were beginning to rebel.
Still, when a line like Jagerstatter’s plea — “When a leader allows himself to break the rules of humanity, it is the responsibility of every citizen to break the leader’s rules” — is repeated multiple times and pitched to the audience as a near-rallying cry, there’s an intended sense of immediacy.
Sobol and Edelstein, though, are smart enough to put the art before the politics. If anything, the contempo relevancy only serves to deepen the play, to make stickier the issues that might otherwise seem so clear-cut and to make fully dimensional a play that could otherwise feel flat.
Gareth Saxe — an actor with a long, expressive face and lean physique — plays Jagerstatter with unmannered clarity, as a man whose soul is at peace because he believes to his core that he must refuse to serve in Hitler’s military, even if that means dying for his choice. But the sacrifice isn’t easy — it’s not as if he has little to live for.
In an early scene, his young daughter (Christina Burdette) appears not just onstage but in a gigantic black-and-white film projection on the back wall of Neil Patel’s spare, prison-cell setting, making literal how large she looms in Jagerstatter’s mind.
Over a series of scenes presented without intermission, Jagerstatter debates his decision with others. First, there’s his gruff but generous jailer, Sgt. Bastian (JB Blanc), baffled by the death row prisoner’s commitment to his job of cleaning pots and pans (the answer, at least the literal one: The pan will be around longer than we will).
Then there are his childhood friends serving in the army. Martin (James Joseph O’Neil) is a patriot who can’t comprehend Jagerstatter’s intransigence. (“You aid the enemy and undermine the morale of the troops,” he declares, in a line that sounds … familiar.)
On the opposite end of the militaristic spectrum is the more interesting Hans (Seamus Dever), who spends his time on duty sexually satisfying a colonel’s wife. To him, the uniform means nothing at all. “Let them slap a costume on you,” he insists to Franz. “Do you really want to lose your head over these rags?”
Following are figures who represent institutions, and therefore carry even more symbolic weight. There’s a prison physician, Dr. Raps (Joan McMurtrey), who by role if not by training plays the psychologist. If she can’t convince Franz that his rebellion is all about his having grown up without a father, then she hopes to conclude he’s crazy as a means of avoiding the sentence. He’ll have none of it.
Finally, and most dramatically, there’s the priest, Father Jochmann (Michael Rudko), who questions how Franz can really be so confident in his judgment of what is right and wrong, making a strange case for moral relevancy and near-religious faith in civil authorities. Pressed to his limit, Jagerstatter goes on the attack, accusing the priest and everyone else of participating in conscious denial of the atrocities they see happening.
Thus, Sobol’s take on Jagerstatter becomes explicit. He is the witness to the fact that people know the truth even if they won’t admit it, even to themselves, and his death will be testimony to the fact that people had a choice whether to participate or not.
It’s powerful stuff, and there’s a challenge in it related to today’s world, too. While Jagerstatter is careful not to judge others too harshly, and Sobol and Edelstein are careful not to push too hard thematically, there’s a clear statement here that we are all responsible — no excuses, please, no matter how you voted in the last two elections — for the actions of our government.
It’s not a pleasant point, but it has the ring of truth and the power of a challenge.
Each performer is so remarkably strong, the play is made even more potent. The actors bide the stylistic shifts in Sobol’s writing, and even make something meaningful in them. Saxe is able to move from scenes of realism to exaggerated comedy — a vaudeville-style sketch with Hans — and back again.
The play has its puzzling elements. The character of Margaret (Katrina Lenk), for example, a lascivious, manic woman whom Franz dated before falling magically in love with Franca (Rebecca Lowman), now his wife, feels like a creature from some other type of play. And, no matter how much he may want to avoid it, Sobol gets a bit preachy in the scenes of moral debate and a bit pretentious with the metaphors.
But even when the show is not completely involving, Edelstein and his ensemble provide the whole with a fine fluidity, which makes “iWitness” nearly as beautiful as it is important.