Americans were largely oblivious to the growing danger of fascism in the late 1930s, and Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine” provided a dramatic wakeup call when it hit Broadway in 1941. Theatergoers intrigued by the message ignored the play’s talkiness, a fault that persisted in Warner Bros.’ static 1943 film version starring Bette Davis. The dialogue-heavy, overwritten scenes are still in evidence at Theatricum Botanicum, but director Heidi Davis wisely stresses humor to punch up pokey spots and draws strong characterizations from Melora Marshall as the supportive wife of a German resistance leader and Ellen Geer as a domineering but softhearted Washington widow.
At first, Geer’s portrait of wealthy, insulated Fanny is surprisingly high-voiced and fluttery. Her conception of the part gains validity when we recognize seeming superficiality as prelude to a burgeoning political conscience. Geer’s amusingly eccentric Billie Burke approach enables her to remain sympathetic when Fanny tactlessly confronts long-absent daughter Sara (Marshall) after 20 years with “You’re not young anymore” or her European son-in-law Kurt (Jeff Bergquist) by saying, “You’re a good-looking man for a German” and “I thought Sara would have a miserable life with you.”
Hellman dwells too long on Sara’s history as wife and mother of three children, Babette (Shannon Clair), Bodo (Natalie Case, convincingly portraying a boy) and Joshua (Tim Harvey). The plot acquires punch when we see that houseguest Teck (Ted Barton) is a Nazi sympathizer, married to Marthe (Abby Craden), who despises him and is openly in love with Sara’s brother David (Chad Jason Scheppner).
Knowing the Nazi and the resistance leader are destined to collide, it takes patience to push through dithering domestic chatter, and the bickering between Fanny and her servant Anise (Karen Louise Reed) is overstressed. The production settles on firmer ground throughout an absorbing scene when Marthe flares up at Fanny, bitterly accusing her of destroying her son’s life and sabotaging their growing romantic relationship. Craden shatters the muted mood of the play with powerful anger, and Geer grippingly reveals the demanding nature that drove her daughter away and now keeps her son from a fulfilling life of his own.
As tired, physically damaged Kurt, Bergquist ably communicates the pain of a battle-weary freedom fighter. Kurt is believably worn and vulnerable, guilt-ridden from the necessity of committing murder but determined to make the world a safer place. Barton’s Nazi conveys slimy opportunism behind an affable social front, and his unctuous villain is a compelling close-up of low-key evil.
Although director Davis skillfully highlights the simmering undercurrents that turn polite talk to violence, Barton’s and Bergquist’s subtle skirmishing doesn’t erupt into a explosive climactic confrontation. Both actors could display heightened passion here, and the horror of death dragged into a respectable living room dissipates in wrap-up commentary more fashionable in the 1940s than now.
Visually, the show benefits from Marjorie Vander Hoff’s costumes, with pointedly accurate contrast between Fanny’s stylish purple suit and Sara’s poverty-dictated dresses. Jeff Teeter’s lighting successfully transforms the outdoor set into a realistic approximation of a well-to-do Washington home.
Davis keeps action from becoming static through such devices as a stage-left baseball catch between Sara’s older son Joshua (gifted Tim Harvey) and servant Joseph (Tarnue Massaquoi), while characters at centerstage battle their way toward broader understanding.
Overall, “Rhine” lacks the fireworks associated with such Hellman melodramas as “The Little Foxes,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Toys in the Attic.” But individual moments stand out, notably when awakened Fanny tells a stunned David, “We’ve been shaken out of the magnolias.” At times like these, the production presents a wrenching case against complacency and effectively emphasizes the need to maintain awareness of deadly new enemies in our midst.