Jeffrey R. Smith

Reviews

THE UNVEILING

The Phoenix Theatre of San Francisco is currently performing THE UNVEILING.

Written by Linda Ayres-Frederick and brilliantly directed by Julie Dimas-Lockfeld, this riveting holocaust based drama unfolds with precision pacing and a metronomic cadence.

Each scene sets a treble hook, indeed a grappling hook, for the one that follows.

The script is air-tight; the fluff and the superfluous have been squeezed out of it.

The play calls to question the nuances of difference that separate inaction from collaboration, from cooperation, from capitulation and ultimately from survival itself, when faced with the inescapable moral choices presented by the Holocaust.

While the Nuremberg Trials systematically adjudicated the black and white cases of unequivocal guilt or innocence, it was left to the survivors themselves to preside over cases involving the shades of multifarious gray—cases involving inaction, self-preserving fraternization, tacit connivance, the Jewish Kapos and beyond.

By the most rigid standards, survival itself could be construed as complicity.

The range of self-declared guilt runs the gamut from flippant dismissal to self-destructive self-condemnation for even the most minuscule of compromises.

Herschel Rabinovitz, played by Richard Aiello, is one such tormented survivor.

He is haunted by his complicity, his compromise and even his survival.

When one is trapped in a setting wherein humanity is not only debased, but suspended entirely, the only compass is survival.

In his book, THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED, Primo Levi confesses to once having been so thirsty that he drank fetid water from a broken rusty stand pipe.

It was not his breach of hygiene or dietary laws that later pestered Levi like a swarm of furies, it was the fact that he drank the offal water secretly so he would not have to share it with fellow prisoners who were equally dehydrated: people he thought of as friends.

Having survived Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, Levi (prisoner number 174517 and later an award winning chemist) committed suicide in 1987, still pursued by the camp experience.

Ironically, the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials may have shown more mercy on Nazi perpetrators, than the prisoners who survived the Holocaust showed for themselves.

While some may have defensively argued “I only drove the train,” or “I was only a barber,” or “I only mended the electric perimeter fence,” or “I only tattooed the numbers,”  others argued, “the fact that I survived, meant that I did not do enough.”

For many, both Jewish and Christian alike, the enormity of the Holocaust weakened or destroyed not only their religion but also their belief in a merciful God who responds to prayers and provides an aegis for his chosen.

Following the war, Herschel and his daughters, Sadie and Natalie, find safe haven in Brooklyn.

Unable to shake the paranoid psychology of the camp, Herschel mistrusts his new life; he believes that the forces of the Holocaust can spontaneously regenerate themselves with minimal provocation from the Jews.

When Herschel receives a letter from his brother-in-law in Israel, he realizes that time can never out run history; his charade is over.

In the letter, his brother-in-law, Shmuel announces he is coming to join Herschel in Brooklyn.

Shmuel arrives with a small valise of personal items but with a steamer trunk full of memories of the War and of Malka Cohen, his sister and Herschel’s murdered wife.

Shmuel—played with wonderful moral equanimity and transcendent ambivalence by Evan Sokol—hovers untethered by value judgements over Herschel’s quest for atonement and reconciliation with the past.

As in the case of Primo Levi and others who were given a second life, Herschel questions the value of life after the Holocaust.

Herschel takes a high stakes gamble with the new life he has assembled in the twenty years following his escape from the camp.

Can the atrocities of the first life, render the second life worthless?

Herschel, listens respectfully to the arguments of Shmuel, Sadie and Natalie then makes a dice roll, uncertain of the outcome.

Playwright Linda Ayres-Frederick does a marvelous job with characters Sadie (played beautifully, with the felicity and fidelity of Lear’s Cordelia, by Juliet Tanner) and Natalie (played with oceans of sultry petulance by Valerie Weak).

THE UNVEILING is compelling evidence that theatre is more than mere entertainment; it is not only a mirror held up to humanity, but also a mirror held up to inhumanity.

THE UNVEILING should not be missed.

The show continues through October 28.

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