While some debate whether Steven Spielberg exploited the Holocaust with “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg’s detractors might take a lesson from “Edith Stein ,” Arthur Giron’s play about a related subject. For here is one playwright’s attempt to deal with the Holocaust through images and stories that cannot help but push obvious buttons — as “Schindler” is similarly accused of doing — yet which is utterly devoid of artistic vision and even a basic dramaturgical competence. The result is likely to elicit more anger than sympathy from the largely Jewish audience at this Jewish Repertory Theater production.
The play takes as its starting point the efforts begun in 1986 by several international Jewish organizations to have a tiny Carmelite convent removed from a building on the grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp. At the opening, while sound effects suggest the Hitler era, a lone man with a suitcase arrives at the convent and identifies himself to the Prioress (Susan Riskin) as Weismann (Norman Rose), a representative of the International Holocaust Committee.
Weismann (modeled on Rabbi Avi Weiss) objects to the idea of a convent in the place that has become a symbol of evil to all humanity but which has particular meaning for Jews. And he’s even more incensed that the nunnery reserves particular honor for the camp’s most famous resident, Edith Stein (Laura Esterman), a convert from Judaism martyred at Auschwitz. Naming the convent for Edith Stein, Weismann argues, diminishes the martyrdom of the 6 million and reinforces a belief that Catholics want to convert the world.
What a missed opportunity this objection represented! As Edith herself shatteringly discovers during the course of flashbacks that take place between Weismann’s two dialogues with the Carmelites, Rome was indifferent to the plight of Europe’s Jews; what better place for atonement than the very site where so many were murdered?
“Edith Stein” unfolds on no such intellectual plane. It follows Edith leaving the fold of her upper middle class household in Breslau to ultimately find solace in the church. At first she is coy about her conversion — a secret, she insists, between herself and God — but later she reveals her frustration at sitting with the rest of the women in the balcony of the synagogue as the men approached the altar below.
This notion of trading temple for church because it’s more feminist is certainly odd, especially given that Reform Judaism — in which women attained religious equality with men — was a late-19th-century German movement. But Stein, an intellectual with a doctorate in philosophy, clearly found great spiritual sustenance in the ascetic environs of the convent, as the world outside turned incomprehensibly evil.
At the convent she is courted by a Nazi officer (Jim Abele), who visits every day in a bizarre attempt to lure her away. Finally revealing herself as Jewish-born seals her fate in the play’s sole dramatic conceit — a scene that echoes an earlier one in which Edith played the biblical Queen Esther, who risked her life by revealing to the King of Persia that she was a Jew. Esther and herpeople survived, of course, while there was no such divine intervention attained with Edith, who in fact was the only sister in her Holland convent marked for death — precisely because she was born Jewish.
What a powerful story, and how clumsily it is told, both in Giron’s turgid drama and in Lee Sankowich’s impoverished staging. The speeches have nothing to do with revealing character; they’re low-level debate that all have the same voice, and it’s the author’s. The performances, with three exceptions, are amateur. The exceptions are Esterman, who makes Edith a figure we can sympathize with, if never really understand; Riskin, who imbues the Prioress with a believably patronizing kindness; and Stacie Chaiken, full of life as the young widow of Edith’s most influential college professor.
The production values are nil; whether by choice or design it’s hard to tell, but the result merely reinforces one’s sense that “Edith Stein” is the work of amateurs. That such a work retains an intermittent power to shock speaks more to the timelessness of the Nazi horror than to the particular artistic forces at work here.