Oskar Schindler wasn’t the only German insider who fought against Nazi atrocities. There was also Kurt Gerstein, an evangelical Christian and officer of the SS, who risked all to wage a private war against Hitler’s gas chambers. Novelist Thomas Keneally, author of the book from which the film “Schindler’s List” was adapted, has turned Gerstein’s saga into his first play, “Either Or,” debuting at D.C.’s Theater J. It’s another absorbing story about one man’s crusade against moral decay, but it doesn’t quite translate into effective theater.
Gerstein was an early supporter of Hitler until the persecutions began. The religious idealist was even imprisoned for helping a Jewish member of his Christian youth group. He joined the army in hopes of influencing its direction, and ultimately helped introduce Zyklon B for use in concentration camps to delouse prisoners and kill other pests. But he watched in horror as the SS found other uses for the chemical. When his efforts to seek condemnation from the Vatican and others proved fruitless, Gerstein surrendered to the Allies, eager to report all. He died in a Paris prison in 1945 of an apparent suicide.
Keneally’s play begins and ends in the prison with Gerstein hanging from a strip torn from his blanket. In between is an event-filled life story that emphasizes the gruesome Hobson’s choice presented to him: what route does he pursue to poison the innocent victims of Germany’s concentration camps — the slow and painful death from carbon monoxide dispensed from a creaky engine, or the quick and more humane Zyklon B? Cruelty or efficiency?
The subject is an especially poignant one for 10-year-old Theater J, which specializes in works with Jewish themes. Although it has previously mounted plays about the Holocaust, this is its first direct examination of concentration camps, with menacing characters strutting in military uniforms, polished boots and armbands, smiling contentedly as the gas is released.
To help veteran novelist Keneally fashion a meaningful script from the strong material, the theater’s creative staff has worked throughout the past year in workshops, readings and a one-month residency with the Australian author.
Keneally’s story is revealed in mostly short scenes that build to a stirring climax, played out on Jim Kronzer’s bare bones set. Director Daniel De Raey keeps the rope taut throughout as frustrations mount over the relentless evils on display.
Theater J’s able cast is headed by Paul Morella as the dedicated evangelical. He is every bit the compassionate and earnest missionary valiantly combating acts of cruelty, culminating in his soul-rending eruption. Yet Keneally’s script fails to instill the character with necessary depth. Morella’s Gerstein registers variations of piety, angst, self righteousness and outrage, but the character isn’t able to convey much more.
Other characters are even more one-dimensional, such as Meghan Grady’s mentally unstable sister-in-law and Ralph Cosham’s stern father, no fault of either performer. Better developed is John Dow’s Pastor Niemoller, a dissident who offers perspective from his jail cell.
As might be expected from such a skilled writer, the flawed play occasionally soars in its perspectives of the “impossible dilemma” within this climate of hatred. “We did not know that malice could take such sculptural form,” intones one character in an especially perceptive aside. Like Keneally’s novel, “Schindler’s Ark,” the story of Kurt Gerstein needs to be told. One hopes it will ultimately find the right voice.