‘Watch on the Rhine’ achieves activist impact despite performance flaws

Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

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Even though World War II was well underway in 1940, America was still more than a year away from becoming involved. Written as a call to action for Americans in the early years of the war, Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine” presents a clear message of the significance and potential impact one can make by becoming involved.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Watch on the Rhine,” directed by Lisa Peterson, brings the play’s anti-fascist theme into the spotlight with their take on this drama. The play takes place in the household of matriarch Fanny Farrelly (Caitlin O’Connell), whose daughter, Sara (Sarah Agnew), has returned home with her German husband, Kurt (Elijah Alexander), after 20 years of living in Europe. Their sudden fleeing to America after a content life in Europe becomes quite representative of the growing severity of the situation overseas.

To make matters worse, Sara and Kurt’s anti-fascist activism becomes threatened by a houseguest, the Romanian count, Teck (Jonathan Walker). As a result, Sara’s family is forced to examine how their passivity can ultimately lead down precarious paths.

The play’s limited setting is crucial — all the action takes place within the household’s living room, and much of the tense plot stems from prolonged confinement in the same space, which inevitably leads to a vehement clash of ideals. That being said, the set design of this production (from scenic designer Neil Patel) is visually stunning, becoming the perfect foundation for the characters’ barbed interactions.

The expertly realized set design allows for one of the most successful aspects of the play: the fluid stage blocking. There are many moments in which all or most of the characters are on stage — up to 11 people at a time — which can easily become distracting and crowded, yet Peterson finds a way to use the ensemble’s presence to enhance the overall stage dynamic. For instance, minor characters slip into the background in a way that feels natural, ultimately adding to the mundane quality of characters spending time in a living room together. The play is heavy in dialogue and sparse in action, so a strong realist depiction is essential and this production achieves it.

While the actors being on stage at the same time brings a naturalness to the play, it also brings to light the disparity among the actors’ performances. Some of the actors shine in their roles, such as O’Connell as Fanny, who portrays the vibrant and boisterous demeanor of her character immaculately, and Alexander as Kurt, whose nervous physicality — he communicates his emotional state by shaking his hands — is especially commendable.

However, the portrayal of Sara by Agnew does not quite live up to all that the strongly written character has to offer. Sara is central to the plot and has the potential to be a forceful and powerful presence among the ensemble, yet she finds herself overlooked by other characters, such as Marthe (Kate Guentzel), Teck’s wife, who is a significantly less dominant character but offers a commanding and memorable presence in her performance.

Additionally, the character of Teck does not reach the level of antagonism necessary for elevating the stakes of the plot. Walker’s portrayal is not as dominant and forceful as it could be, which somewhat depreciates the conflict.

This discrepancy between the characters’ dynamics results in a lack of ensemble chemistry in certain moments, which is noticeable but does not ultimately detract from the play’s overall thematic impact. At the start of this play, this group of vastly different people are brought together in an intriguing way, and, by the end, the audience understands why. Sara and Kurt, strong advocates of the anti-fascism, have convinced previously uninvolved characters to take part in their bigger movement. Watching this conversion play out through the slow progression of the plot makes for a captivating look into how individuals come into activism.

Thus, this production of “Watch on the Rhine” accomplishes what it sets out to do and leaves audiences much like the characters of the play, feeling compelled to become involved and consider how they fit into the events of today’s world.

“Watch on the Rhine” will run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Jan. 14. 

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].

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